You Will Know Me
(Little, Brown and Company, 2016)
A tempting entrance in reviewing Megan Abbott’s almost freakishly propulsive You Will Know Me is to note that your reviewer’s a 37-year-old white male with nothing more than the casual quadrennial enthusiasm for gymnastics, which enthusiasm demands nothing more than sitting on a couch pretending to be able to suss out differences between flips, vaults, routines. This entrance is tempting because it allows a reviewer to make clear Abbott’s fiction is so sensational it’s able to jump whole valence-levels of interest: I loved this book and I don’t even like gymnastics!
But such praise of Abbott and her work does a weird disservice. Yes: Abbott’s new novel, You Will Know Me—like Dare Me (the first of hers I read)—is about gymnastics, but I know and care just as little about, among other things, computer programming, genetics, re-enacting pro football games, Canadian public radio, murdering all Americans, or zombie fathers, all of which are the central subjects of books I’ve enjoyed. Plus like any great book, You Will Know Me ends up using gymnastics as a gymnast uses the vault: as propulsion device, lofting the action into a vividness that makes you hold your breath till feet thud and the landing’s stuck or not.
(I promise that’ll be the last even attempt at gymnastic metaphors.)
What’s funny too is that the thing Abbott’s actually best at isn’t even writing gymnastics, which she’s better at than anyone else on my radar, nor is her greatest skill to be found in how she writes coherently/complexly/completely about teenage girls, which, again, she’s better at than anyone else I read. No: the central reason to read You Will Know Me is how intuitive the novel feels. How natural; something about flow, something about the book feeling like the absolute realest of lives compressed into pages. Everything I mean by that is present at the novel’s start:
The vinyl banners rippled from the air vent, the restaurant roiling with parents, the bobbing of gymnast heads, music gushing from the weighty speakers keeled on the window ledges.
Slung around Devon's neck were three medals, two silver and one gold, her first regional-champion title on the vault.
“Im so proud of you, sweetie,” Katie whispered in her daughter’s ear. “You can do anything.”
Later, Katie would come to think of that night as the key to everything that came after, the secret code.
You can feel that, right? That’s how good Abbott is: in doing something as seemingly-casual as breaking the scene before the daughter can respond to the mother, Abbott’s offering the reader a wedge-like sense of how life is felt for this Katie and her daughter (Devon). Plus how could you be anything other than salivating, four sentences in, at the prospect that some book’s first scene might not actually a key but simply appear to be a key to this Katie? Look at that: there’s no external, objective authority here. The party, as you get more into it, is a boozy affair full of dancing and sweat, and acts as a hinge for several of the main characters, but how that night is key is revelatory. And without getting too nerdily excitable, look again: Later, Katie would come to think of that night as the key to everything that came after, the secret code. The ambiguity of that later is so human, so everyday; a casual abstraction we get to morph as needed as events shift, reshape.
And to be clear: there are a whole lot of laters in this novel. There’s the later of the death the novel circles, which death is both as straightforward and shadowed as any noir mystery, and there are the individual laters of discrete bits of seemingly clarifying info peppering the novel—the discovery of paint chips in the deceased’s clothing, the revelation that the supposed eye witness has been in the employ of one of the central (and seemingly most Machiavellian) characters, the bloom after bloom of awareness that strikes these characters as they realize all they thought they knew but didn’t—and finally the later of novel’s finish, a terrifying everything’s-changed-but-nothing-has moment that shook this reader.
The story itself is as follows: Devon, Katie’s 15 year-old daughter, is an Olympics-caliber gymnast. Her coach, Teddy Belfour (Coach T), runs BelStars, helped by his formerly-troubled-but-seems-fine-now 19 year-old niece Hailey. Hailey’s dating Ryan Beck, “that sweet, chipped-tooth, handsome young man,” and he’s the one who dies (after being hit by a car on a dark curve long recognized as needing more light, more warning). Plus rounding things out, in terms of critical characters, is Katie’s husband Eric and Drew, their son (he’s eleven? twelve? He’s a perfectly fuzzy character, as edgeless as amoeba). In lots of ways the novel's simply about the desires and needs and hopes and expectations of a whole host of folks as prismed through/lived out by/carried on the back of this phenom gymnast, and of course, it’s hard enough to deal with someone else’s expectations of and desires for us, let alone a whole community (plus an Olympic-caliber athlete, after all, shifts the gravity at gyms—call the pool Ledecky trained most recently at, find out how hard it’d be to get in].
None of which even gets at the monumental skills Abbott displays in telling this story: she jumps chronology, introduces new info, loops back around, scatters bits of uncertainty throughout. It’s one of the best tricks of fiction: when things feel infinitely real not necessarily by perfectly accurate detail (though plenty of that), but because the story includes bits that simply are, things that pick up resonances and fraughtness down the line. Drew, for instance: the youngest Knox is a hugely consequential character, sickly half the time (dude gets Scarlet Fever) and describing dreams of his sister taking the car, being able to fly, etc. There’s just enough battiness in his recollections to make them dismissible, but Katie does so to her peril, and the point, anyway, doesn’t seem that we should listen to each Cassandra-ish voice and heed all our children’s statements but, rather, that our grasp on certainty is and always will be at very best tenuous.
And so there are tiny things I see now, going back through the novel. Each little bit feels like a kick. On page 44, Drew standing at the edge of a pit being dug at the BelStars facility, telling his dad that Ryan said it was fine to stand there, and Eric saying “Well, he doesn't know […] he’s just a kid. He doesn’t know what’s safe.” That pair of facts—just a kid, doesn’t know what’s safe—pick up phenomenal oomph through the whole rest of the book not just regarding Ryan but Devon as well, Hailey as well. Plus, darker and scarier, Katie, Eric and Gwen as well. The true icy horror of You Will Know Me is in seeing how little we grow up; we age, sure, but in our pressed moments most of us aren’t all that much better in terms of Fundamental Humanity than who we were as insecure teenagers. Lots of other critics have noted this aspect of Abbott’s writing, and pointed out that gymnasts are the perfect carriers of this notion: somehow ferociously adult with their determination and ability to handle pain, yet in these tiny, nonsexual bodies.
The novel, in the most unsettling and satisfying ways, does provide all the answers: Ryan’s killer is made clear by book’s end. What you’re left with is a dark mirror casting back at you, the reader, as you have to sit there at the end, breathless, and wondering how differently you’d act in those circumstances. You wouldn’t call it a mean book, and for all its darkness there’s certainly light and humor as well. But you’d be hard pressed to find a more merciless book this year, one that looks as blinklessly at a family’s and community’s hopes and presents them absorbingly, sans excuse or explanation. Because as easy as it is to finish this book seeing the characters as monstrous to some degree or another, it’s infinitely tougher to finish it certain you might not—deep down or right up next to the surface—have some monstrousness in you as well.