Sunday, April 30, 2017

Absolutely hysterical

I'm currently reading - and will likely finish tomorrow - Megan Abbott's The Fever. I previously read another one of her books, Dare Me, about high school cheerleaders in way over their heads. The Fever is a different story, but they both share certain qualities. Abbott is a hyperreal author. Her stories seem eerie and quotidian at the same time. Her narrators and reader identification figures have a lot to do with this.

The fever takes as its topic conversion disorder, which is essentially hysteria, rebranded for a new and antiseptic age. It's inspired by an apparent Tourette's epidemic in Saratoga County, New York, a case that could bloom nonfiction books, plays, action figures. As in that case, teenage girls spasm and pass out, with no known medical cause. As in the real case, there's a brief attempt to rationalize it by blaming the HPV vaccine. The daughter of the protagonist family isn't infected, which raises the possibility she'll be shunned as a kind of Typhoid Mary.

In Abbott's telling there is hysteria going on, and while it explain's the girls' illness, they're not the only ones affected by it. In fact while they have the symptoms, the illness spreads well beyond, into the adult world,


susan said...

With your introduction Megan Abbott has become another of those authors I'd never heard about before whose work I'm very interested in now. Since I enjoy reading noir I've put a library hold order on her novel Queenpin - its premise of a young, inexperienced woman going to work for a somewhat older 'moll' sounds like a good one to begin with.

Conversion disorder as another, and more politically correct, term for hysteria makes for another interesting idea on which to base a novel. I only vaguely remembered the case in NY but I do remember reading about similar events that happened at the time of the witch trials in Europe and the US. Even now the causes remain pretty mysterious. Thankfully, it's not something I ever experienced or witnessed - except in the case of Beatlemania which looked like girls having fun screaming.

Anyhow, thanks for the tip about Megan Abbott.

Ben said...

Let me know how you like Queenpin. That's one I haven't read, or read much about. She's good though. Her stories are very impressionistic, with an uncanny feel despite the (probable) absence of supernatural doings. "Moll" isn't used much anymore, is it? Of course I think it was mostly a movie term to begin with.

The witchcraft panics in both Europe and Colonial America had a lot of moving parts. In the latter case I've heard it said that the communities were losing some of their cohesion by that point, and the witch trials were a way of keeping them together. With some obvious losers of course. It's a plausible explanation.

Beatlemania was mostly harmless, I'm sure. Mostly a way for girls of the time to test and push at their social boundaries. The Beatles themselves seemed to be quite amused by it.