My Absolute Darling

MyAbsoluteDarling“Martin holds his burning cigarette upright. The cherry is just barely visible in the dark; above it, the tower of ash. He turns it slowly, inspecting it from all angles. He says, ‘You want me to eat that scorpion?’

‘Try it!’ Cayenne says.

Turtle can see that the girl wants to share this with him. She wants this to be something they’ve all done together. But Turtle doesn’t want him to do it. She wants to show Cayenne something important here, about her own substance and about Martin’s because Martin, Turtle thinks, is afraid.

Martin says, ‘You didn’t eat a scorpion.’

‘Why would we make this shit up?’ Turtle says.

Martin chews his lip. At last, he says, ‘You really want to see me eat this scorpion, huh?'” – My Absolute Darling, by Gabriel Tallent

This novel and its author have been getting so much attention, I had to find out what all the fuss was about. Stephen King declared My Absolute Darling a masterpiece, and there are endorsement quotes on the book jacket from Phil Klay, who won the National Book Award for the short story collection Redeployment, and Celeste Ng, author of the novel Everything I Never Told You. All are writers I’ve enjoyed whose opinions I respect.

On the other hand, another writer I like, Roxane Gay, the author of Bad Feminist, is not a fan of My Absolute Darling.

So readers are divided about this first novel by Gabriel Tallent, whose mother, by the way, is the writer Elizabeth Tallent. I decided to read other reviews before I wrote this post because I was conflicted about the novel, and I wanted to see if these could help clarify my thinking. If you are up for reading a disturbing story of incest and obsessive love, I do recommend My Absolute Darling. I think the book has flaws but, in the end, they didn’t fatally undermine the story for me, which is a true page-turner – I stayed up late reading it on two consecutive nights. And despite its dark theme, the protagonist, 14-year-old Turtle, is a brave, noble spirit I won’t soon forget.

Turtle lives with her father, Martin, on the northern California coast near Mendocino. Martin is an autodidact partial to reading David Hume and other inscrutable texts of the great philosophers, a survivalist waiting for the end of the world, and a sociopath who is sexually abusing his daughter. Guns are everywhere in their decrepit house, as well as stocks of food and medical supplies. Martin began teaching Turtle how to shoot when she was six, and now she is an excellent markswoman with superb survival skills.

Martin worships Turtle as a goddess he can’t live without, but his mood can turn on a dime and Turtle suddenly turns to filth in his eyes. Having endured this abuse for years, Turtle has a fragile sense of herself. When two boys from the local high school come into her life and Turtle develops a crush on one of them, Turtle realizes that forming bonds with others endangers them. Turtle must go to great lengths, both inside herself and out in the world, to break free from the dark power her father holds over her.

Tallent’s prose can be flashy and mesmerizing. There is a strong sense of place, with lush descriptions of coastal California. Sometimes the language is technical and the paragraphs are long, peppered with words I wasn’t familiar with but, generally, this didn’t bother me; other readers may feel this interferes with the story. I love good nature writing and, for the most part, I felt that Tallent nailed the dramatic beauty and wildness of the California coast.

The writing was sometimes over the top in other ways. For example, Martin, Turtle’s father, could be so senselessly sadistic, he sometimes wasn’t believable. I think the author wanted to write a keep-the-pages-turning story, and he may have been influenced by the current highly sensational nature of movies and television drama. I’m revealing my age as far as literary taste goes, and younger readers might not find aspects of the story so extreme. That said, there are also echoes of fine literary works evident, among them The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Lolita. These deepen and enrich the story of Turtle and Martin.

More problematic than Tallent’s occasionally self-conscious prose are issues that Roxane Gay points out in a Goodreads review. Gay, who has written about sexual abuse, feels that there are elements of Turtle and Martin’s incestuous relationship that Tallent simply got wrong. I can’t speak to this, but I did feel, occasionally, that Turtle would not have acted in certain ways or that she would have made different decisions. Destructive relationships are complicated, and it’s incredibly difficult to capture the psychological dynamics involved.

I’m listing so many caveats you might think I didn’t like the novel, but that’s not the case. Turtle is an unusual heroine, a real survivor, though not the kind her father envisioned. Gabriel Tallent is young – about thirty – and he chose to tell an extremely challenging story.  His writing will mature. He’s now working on a second novel.

Here are a few more excerpts from My Absolute Darling:

“‘You are the most beautiful thing,’ he says, ‘that’s what I think. Everything about you, kibble, is perfect. Every detail. You are the platonic ideal of yourself. Your every blemish, every scratch, is inimitable elaboration on your beauty and your wildness. You look like a naiad. You look like a girl raised by wolves. You know that?'”

********

“Walk away, Turtle. Just walk away from him, and if he follows after and if he will not let you go, you kill him. He’s given you everything and all you need to do is walk away. Do you remember when blood ran in your veins like cool, clear water? You could find that place again and it would be hard but it would be good. Nothing and no one can keep you away from it; only you can take yourself back into the dark, only you can do that. He can’t do it to you, and don’t lie about that. So walk away, Turtle. Think about your soul, and walk away.”

Who else has read this novel by a brand new American novelist, and what did you think? I’d love to hear from other readers.

Station Eleven

Station Eleven book cover“On Day Seven the networks began to blink off the air, one by one. ‘So that all of our employees may be with their families,’ a CNN anchor said, ashen and glassy-eyed after forty-eight hours without sleep, ‘we are temporarily suspending broadcast operations.’ ‘Good night,’ NBC said an hour later, ‘and good luck.’ CBS switched without comment to reruns of America’s Got Talent. This was at five in the morning, and everyone who was awake watched for a few hours – it was nice to take a quick break from the end of the world – and then in the early afternoon the lights went out.”     Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel

I’ve been reading dystopian fiction lately and looking forward to the third installment of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay. When neighboring Buffalo was buried in over 70 inches of snow this week, I thought of Cal in the futuristic novel California, whose parents were lost in a massive snowstorm that destroyed Cleveland. And just as I dipped into pandemic-ridden Station Eleven, Ebola was front and center in the news. Reality and fiction are getting too close for comfort.

California book coverIn California by Edan Lepucki, it’s post apocalypse: climate change, inequality, and societal decay on a massive scale have pushed civilization over the edge. The “haves” live in fiercely guarded gated communities, while others band together in communes and cultish groups, and some eke out a living in the wilderness on their own.

It’s Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven I want to write about here, a National Book Award finalist. Of the two novels, I prefer this one, though both have gotten excellent reviews. In Station Eleven, a flu pandemic kills 99.9 percent of the population in a matter of days. We see the end of advanced civilization through the eyes of five characters, and the first decades after the collapse.

One of my favorite characters is Clark, a corporate consultant who specializes in coaching problematic executives and CEOs to change their behavior. Days before the outbreak of the Georgia flu, Clark interviews an especially perceptive employee to see what others think of a particular manager. I love this exchange:

“‘….it’s like the corporate world is full of ghosts. And actually, let me revise that, my parents are in academia so I’ve had front-row seats for that horror show, I know academia’s no different, so maybe a fairer way of putting this would be to say that adulthood’s full of ghosts.'”

“‘I’m talking about these people who have ended up in one life instead of another and they are just so disappointed. Do you know what I mean? They’ve done what’s expected of them. They want to do something different but it’s impossible now, there’s a mortgage, kids, whatever, they’re trapped. Dan’s like that….but I don’t think he even realizes it. You probably encounter people like him all the time. High-functioning sleepwalkers, essentially.'”

What was it in this statement that made Clark want to weep?

“…you go on like that, looking forward to five o’clock and then the weekend and then your two or three annual weeks of paid vacation time, day in day, and that’s what happens to your life.”

“Right,” Clark said. He was filled in that moment with an inexpressible longing.

“Guys like Dan, they’re like sleepwalkers,” she said, “and nothing ever jolts them awake.”

Clark, of course, is jolted awake in a very big way when his flight to Toronto is diverted to a small Michigan airport after the pandemic explodes. He and his fellow passengers, untouched by the flu, watch the end of life as they know it on television. They never leave the airport – it becomes their settlement, their home. Eventually, Clark establishes a Museum of Civilization, where people donate iPads and smart phones and other remnants of their now-lost advanced culture.

“Like educated children everywhere, the children in the airport school memorized abstractions: the airplanes outside once flew through the air. You could us an airplane to travel to the other side of the world, but….when you were on an airplane you had to turn off your electronic devices before takeoff and landing, devices such as the tiny flat machines that played music and the larger machines that opened up like books and had screens that hadn’t always been dark, the insides brimming with circuitry, and these machines were the portals into a worldwide network. Satellites beamed information down to Earth. Goods traveled in ships and airplanes across the world. There was no place on earth that was too far away to get to.”

Meanwhile, a roving theater troupe travels from town to town performing classical music and Shakespeare for groups of survivors living in abandoned Walmarts and gas stations. In this troupe are characters we’ve met earlier in the novel.  The younger members only dimly remember a world with electricity and and other marvels, and some were born after the collapse. One day, they arrive at Clark’s airport settlement, and there is a poignant reunion of sorts for Clark.

Station Eleven, among other things, asks whether art can save and redeem humanity. I can’t help but think of this outpouring of dystopian literature as the proverbial canary in the mine. A wake-up call for those of us who, like the characters in Station Eleven, may need it. Ursula Le Guin, in her stirring National Book Award speech the other night, said we will need more writers who can imagine a different way of being. Six minutes well worth listening to.

Redeployment by Phil Klay,  a veteran of the Iraq War, won the National Book Award for fiction, so this collection of short stories is on my reading list.

 

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