My Absolute Darling

Thinking About Absolutes

This month, Snotty Literati is looking at the debut novel by Gabriel Tallent, My Absolute Darling. There’s a lot of talk about this book. Stephen King was smitten with it, calling it a masterpiece! Word on the street is that the male author, only thirty, doesn’t have the right to cover the topic. Major book reviewers (NYT, NPR, WaPo, Amazon, etc.) loved it, and it made numerous “Best of 2017” lists. That said, should you read it? My Absolute Darling tells the story of fourteen-year-old Turtle Alveston and her crazy father, Martin, living strangely in Northern California. Turtle’s mother is dead, and we don’t exactly know why. Turtle’s existence is all about her father and their complicated relationship. Her vulnerability and emerging strength are at the heart of this novel.

Jennifer: So, I’m in a book club, and we were all set to read this book (my choice!). After several people read the first chapter, we made a group decision to abandon it and we went for Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge (which, incidentally, evoked a great discussion). I’m wondering if you want to launch this part of the discussion. What’s so controversial about this book?

Lara: Well, let’s just come out with it. Martin physically, sexually, and emotionally abuses Turtle. And it’s really hard to read. Adding to the controversy, I think, is the fact that Tallent is male, and how is it that he has earned the right to write a young girl’s story of sexual abuse at the hands of her father?

Jennifer: Good question, and relevant in many circumstances. Who has the right to tell particular stories? Can a man tell the story of a sexually-abused girl from her perspective? (The book is written in third-person, limited with a close proximity to Turtle.) Do women’s stories belong to women, and men’s stories belong to men? What about stories centering on race or ethnicity? The book that comes up over and over in this discussion is Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, which I didn’t actually read. But this book: does Tallent have the right to write this story? Is it way too easy to grant him authorial permission because he had an unorthodox childhood and was raised by two women?

I don’t know if I have the answer. I’ll say that I don’t do it. As a writer, I stick with my territory. I’ll also admit, though, that I’m dying—like dying—to write about race. And maybe I will someday. But it will still be from a white girl perspective.

I’ll also say that it didn’t bother me one bit that Tallent, a guy, took this story to himself and told it. I had no problem with that. I think he did a good job.

What do you think?

Lara: I think what probably matters more is if the work reads authentically. We do need to hear these stories—as difficult as they are to read—to know that they happen. I think reading fiction is a way of increasing our empathy and humanity. That said, it felt authentic in what little I know about how a child of abuse wrestles between the myriad of emotions when the person who is supposed to protect you and be your safe place to land is just the opposite. The push and pull of love, hate, admiration, despising, humiliation, fear, and the list goes on were all present here.

Jennifer: So, it was authentic, you’d say, or rendered authentically? I’d agree.

That is, however, but one aspect. This is a hard, hard story. When my book group decided to abandon it, my first inclination—not having even picked it up yet—was to be a little miffed. My feeling was that stories—the good, the bad, the ugly—need to be heard by everyone. We need the hard stories, especially.

And then I read that first chapter. And the sexual abuse is rough here. And I revised my response. Not everyone needs all of the hard stories. This book is not for everyone.

Lara: It’s absolutely not for everyone. And I don’t honestly know to whom I would recommend this book—the subject matter removes the open recommendation for me. Had I experienced even an iota of the kind of abuse Turtle experiences—and at the hands of her father—I would not be able to read this.

So, let’s get into the story, the characters, and if it deserves all the hype.

Turtle, a.k.a Kibble, a.k.a Julia (her birth name), is a fourteen-year-old girl struggling in school, unable to make friends, and unwilling to accept help from her teacher, Anna (who senses something is wrong at home). The book paints Turtle’s abusive home life early on and, at the same time, sends Turtle on a coming-of-age journey that has her start straying away from the life her father has fiercely tried to trap her in. Turtle wanders away from their lush and forested Mendocino property where she meets two older boys, Jacob and Brett. Their friendship exposes Turtle to family life that is much different—and much healthier—than her own. Of course, Martin finds out and the ties that bind clench even tighter.

Jennifer: Yes. As her world grows larger, her own sense of self becomes increasingly complex. The boys seem to be her first confrontation with normalcy.

I thought it was a very good book, honestly. Its strength might be in its rendering of mixed emotions. Turtle loves and hates her father, and I could believe that. Actually, I think Tallent did an amazing job in showing how crazy one’s emotions might be. I was impressed with that. I think it’s easier to paint one’s hatred in this situation, and Tallent successfully painted one’s love too.

I think it might be considered a literary thriller like Dan Chaon’s Ill Will—but I found it more suspenseful than Chaon. I can see comparisons with Stephen King. I was pretty into finding out what happened.

But there were problems. The artificially highfalutin high school boy talk was over-the-top, like I went to college (not high school) with those guys—and that kind of conversation can be maintained for ten or fifteen minutes max. After that, eyes roll. People fall to the ground, exhausted.

Maybe there was some overdoing it when describing landscape? Like Tallent seems to long to write about flora and fauna, right? It’s all lovely, but I’m thinking of The Girls by Emma Cline. A tad too much. I liked it, totally—but, man, the prose was, um, artful:

“Beside her, a crumpled jellyfish with purple skirts, limbs in ropy tangles, the hollows crawling with sand fleas swollen and magnified by the lenslike flesh. The water is brackish. The river current trades with the waves, changing back and forth. The surf rolls on toward her with a cacophonous grind palpable in the water and in the sandy bed below, palpable in her guts, which wallow in their ruptured and mucilaginous sack, each breaking wave sending a swash of water that rises around her and then drains. She lies scooping after oily thoughts like raking through seaweed for eels, thinking, I could close my eyes and this, all of this, would be over. Then she thinks, no, fuck that—you had your chance, you cunt, and you’re in it now.”

This passage says it all: the weirdness of the lavish, beautiful, poetic, over-the-top landscape descriptions combined with harsh language that often includes the word that women hate. It does effectively, I think, reveal the way a molested child often hates him- or herself, or experiences self-loathing despite being the victim of a crime. That said, was this necessary?

Lara: The overly artful (or as I say overwritten and show off-y) language is not necessary. The language of Turtle’s inner voice is necessary. I think it shows how damaging the abuse is. That it completely changes the way one sees oneself. And Martin saw her—or at least addressed her—as a stupid bitch and a dumb cunt. So, of course, that’s the lens through which she sees herself.

Jennifer: Show off-y? Hmm. I’m okay with that! If you’ve got it, flaunt it? No?

Accessibility is my big concern. Is it accessible? Do readers get it? Do they want to get it, or will they stop trying? I think they get it here, but I have a favorite example I love to bring up all the time. Colson Whitehead is one of my favorites. I recently read Zone One and The Colossus of New York. Two great books. But every single sentence is a work of pure art, and it’ll drive many people absolutely bonkers. (The Underground Railroad is more accessible.) There’s this fine line between esoteric beauty and accessible enjoyment. Tallent teeters on this line; I’d say, for the most part, he’s accessible.

But, really, it’s the skillful rendering of mixed emotions that got me: “He strides over to her and hits her hard in the jaw and she reels back in a plume of blood and her overwhelming feeling is one of relief.”

Over and over, we see this.

I’m sensing that I liked it more than you. You said you don’t think you can recommend it. Was it a book worth reading for you?

Lara: Oh, it’s accessible. It’s just too much of the ridiculous writing. And Jacob and Brett were TOO MUCH! I was glad that they were a catalyst for Turtle’s ability to see other ways of living, but they were pretentious beyond belief. I cannot believe that fifteen-year-old boys sit around for hours and hours talking like they are forty-year-old academics.

You did like it more than I did. I don’t regret that I read it, but it’s not going to stay with me or live up to the number of accolades it received.

Why do you think Martin always called her Turtle or Kibble, and not by her given name? Did that make it easier for him to abuse her?

Jennifer: Well, Martin is crazy, so there’s that. He’s a sick man. Do the names make abuse easier? I don’t know. I think they express his illness: the names reduce her; they’re diminutives. I think he’s so far gone that he doesn’t even recognize boundaries or morality—which is the irony of calling her his absolute darling. He has no understanding of Absolutes. He’s your classic—pardon the French—sick fuck.

He’s the psycho dad who reads philosophy, and makes absolute a dirty word. There was this one part in which he pontificates on the effect of pain. He says,

“But to see someone in pain like that, once you get past the surprise, is to make apparent the unbridgeable gulf that separates your own human mind from all other, alien personalities. It illuminates the true and actual – not the social and the imagined – state of human intercourse. Communication is a thin veneer, Kibble.”

Lara: Doesn’t that make your head hurt? Even just a little bit?

Jennifer: Yes, it does. Martin is a law unto himself. The title of this book is an irony, a blasphemy. Really, I found the book smart.

Tallent could scale back on the boys, for sure.

But I’ll end with this descriptive fragment:

“. . . a single blue-bellied lizard with its head cocked up, blue throat just visible and tagged with deer ticks like blue sesame seeds, the keeled scales of the neck standing up like thorns, the spiny crests of the brown silhouetted perfectly in that keyhole of evening light.”

Lara: Readers, you tell us. Is that head-spinning prose pretentious or genius?

Next Up!

Fredrik Backman’s, Beartownis our next read. What are you cracking open?_______________________________________________________________________

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