AT THE END of one of many baroquely violent scenes in My Absolute Darling — Gabriel Tallent’s compelling, frustrating first novel — Martin, the violence’s perpetrator, lectures its target, his 14-year-old daughter Turtle, on suffering’s relativity:

The idea, so say the philosophers, is that you sit yourself down across from someone, and begin breaking his fingers with a hammer. You see how he reacts. He screams. He clutches his hand to his chest. You infer that he acts this way because he is in pain.

But what really happens, when you are face-to-face with someone in pain, what really happens is that the gulf between you and them is made apparent. Their pain is utterly inaccessible to you. It might as well be a pantomime.

The scenario Martin lays out is a bastardized, though not wholly inaccurate, restatement of an idea first presented in Adam Smith’s 1759 The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The part about the inaccessibility of another’s pain is pretty dead-on, though in Smith’s version you’re not intentionally taking a hammer to someone else’s fingers. What Smith adds and Martin leaves out, however, makes things more complicated. According to Smith, we may not be able to feel another’s pain, but we can definitely imagine it:

we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations […] His agonies, when they are thus brought home to ourselves, when we have thus adopted and made them our own, begin at last to affect us, and we then tremble and shudder at the thought of what he feels. 

Smith describes this attempt to recreate another’s pain as a kind of “fellow-feeling” — the basis of what today we call empathy — entering into another’s perspective so fully that you’re able to approximate their experience and inure yourself against solipsism. In other words, it’s the bedrock of what we often assume to be one of our best impulses. But put pressure on its inception, look into its origins, and you end up with a conclusion unsettlingly like the one Martin draws: we are incapable of knowing exactly what someone else feels. Whatever information empathy gives us is always only partial. As such, it is more unwieldy and wayward than we may like to think.

Ideas about empathy — both its need and its complexities — animate much of Tallent’s novel. They’re present in not only Martin’s articulations of his maimed moral philosophy, but also Turtle’s attempts to figure out how to feel toward the man responsible for her identity and her pain. While it is a perverse, coerced empathy that chains Turtle to her fundamentally awful father, its practice also holds the promise of liberation from him. For Turtle, the sight of another person’s anguish “eclipse[s] everything else in its importance and mind-bending immediacy.” It is, in other words, the only thing that can eclipse Martin, the tyrannical sun at the center of her tiny universe.

Empathy is also what My Absolute Darling wants to solicit for its characters, particularly Turtle, though Martin too, whose verbose expositions and complicated backstory are given ample space. But empathy to what end? Tallent clearly wants us to think about what compels us to mistreat others, and his novel offers a potent rendering of misogyny’s degrading consequences, yet its willingness to portray the violence done to Turtle in lushly detailed set pieces, complete with showy prose and acute sensory detail, undermines these high-minded intentions. My Absolute Darling tells us that imagining our way inside the mind of another — even another blurred by our own love or hate or lust — is vital to our humanity. However, it provokes something else: empathy intermingled with voyeurism, exploitation, titillation, and escapism.

In many ways, Tallent’s novel is as attentive to the reader’s pleasure as it is to Turtle’s pain. Set on the coast of northern California in a recognizable present of Twitter hashtags and environmental degradation, My Absolute Darling is a straightforward coming-of-age narrative about Turtle’s struggle to separate herself both psychologically and physically from her monstrous father, a gun-obsessed apocalypse prepper just functional enough not to raise too many suspicions (we’re told Martin is charismatic, though it’s hard to see evidence of this on the page). Skillfully plotted, with long, cinematically rendered action sequences doled out at regular intervals, it expertly offers all the traditional pleasures of well-wrought fiction — immersive description, emotional stakes, absorbing characterization. Turtle doesn’t talk much, but Tallent has a knack for the dialogue of ironic, precocious teens, and Jacob and Brett, high school boys who befriend her, are especially vivid and funny. The ecstatic passages in which the teens bushwhack their way through the Mendocino coast provide just enough relief from the claustrophobia of Turtle’s home life. Though the prose can strain too hard for artistry, much of it is flat-out lovely, best in the evocative yet clinically precise descriptions of nature and setting sprinkled throughout: a salamander is “supple and moist as the flesh of an eye, with tiny, almost vestigial legs”; in the waves, “beach cobbles lurch from their beds and roll over one another with a sound like the world grinding its teeth.”

For these reasons, My Absolute Darling is safely classified as contemporary realism, with all the middlebrow moral respectability that implies. But if the novel’s up-to-date milieu and carefully individuated minor characters belong to the fiction of everyday life, we’re in the realm of the gothic each time we step inside Turtle’s home. The lyricism that elsewhere works to immerse the reader in the novel’s setting purples in its depictions of rape and incest, pushing the realism toward icky erotic horror. I expect I will not be the only reviewer to draw a comparison between My Absolute Darling and another recent novel to unrelentingly depict the torture and exploitation of a child, A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara’s polarizing but generally celebrated depiction of childhood abuse and its destructive, unshakable aftermath. As in A Little Life, the physical violence in My Absolute Darling is gratuitous and elaborate. Yet Yanagihara’s novel juxtaposes the trials of protagonist Jude’s youth with a tragic though luxury-steeped adulthood, torquing the whole thing toward melodrama and complicating its scenes of abuse by showing their lingering psychic damage. In contrast, My Absolute Darling, linearly structured and confined roughly to the span of a year, provides no such softening context. This is part of its power: like any good horror novel, it uses its cramped framework to steadily build tension. Nowhere is this more true than in the many oppressive scenes set in Martin’s decaying farmhouse/Armageddon bunker, where portentous, heavily symbolic objects (knives, guns, an open field with a bunch of doors?) accessorize incest, torture, and masochism.

But perhaps the most important difference between A Little Life and My Absolute Darling is that while the former largely elides the worst of the childhood abuse, implying enough to coerce you into imagining the rest, Tallent’s novel makes you watch. There are reasons to hazard the detailed fictional representation of the rape of a 14-year-old girl by her father (note that this isn’t a spoiler; the first instance occurs before the end of chapter one). Depictions of the damage a human body can wreak on another can be smart and illuminating even when they make us want to turn away. Read generously, and in the context of the whole, this is, perhaps, true of those in My Absolute Darling. They do not shy away from the question of Turtle’s physical responses, or her genuine love for her father. They show us how Martin’s degrading psychological abuse of his daughter compels her to mistake her forced passivity for consent, and how Turtle comes to want even the most twisted kinds of affirmation.

And yet, much of this information is conveyed not by how Tallent renders the abuse, but by the subsequent passages of reflection. The language and settings of the scenes themselves are often highly aestheticized, emphasizing the external — place, action, appearance — over thought and feeling. To some extent this is a consequence of Tallent’s choice of narrative voice, a by turns poetic and literal third person closely though not perfectly aligned to Turtle’s viewpoint. Her thoughts are often narrated in a way that calls attention to the artifice of narrated thought: “She watches him and then she lays her head back down and she closes her eyes and she feels her soul to be a stalk of pig mint growing in the dark foundation, slithering toward a keyhole of light between the floorboards, greedy and sun-starved.” Even when we’re in Turtle’s head we’re always a step removed. While this distance nimbly conveys the tangle of Turtle’s inner life, it unmoors the extreme sexual violence from a specific perspective, inviting the possibility of voyeurism. The novel goes out of its way to tell us that its representation of Martin’s treatment of Turtle (and Turtle’s internalized self-image) is a representation of misogyny, even conjuring a good-hearted though somewhat superfluous middle school teacher to talk about it, after-school-special-style. But this exposition comes across as compensatory, anxious to frame the horrors in the proper moral light lest we suspect the novelist — or ourselves — of anything impure.

Adding to these mixed messages is the fact that the narrator never strays further from Turtle’s point of view than when describing her body to the reader, part of a larger tendency to romanticize the protagonist:

She is tall for fourteen, coltishly built, with long legs and arms, wide but slender hips and shoulders, her neck long and corded. Her eyes are her most striking feature, blue, almond-shaped in a face that is too lean, with wide, sharp cheekbones, and her crooked, toothy mouth — an ugly face, she knows, and an unusual one. Her hair is thick and blond, bleached in streaks by the sun. Her skin is constellated with copper-brown freckles. Her palms, the undersides of her forearms, the insides of her thighs, show tangles of blue veins.

When so much of My Absolute Darling strives for fresh, precise description, it is disheartening to find its hero introduced with clichés, even elegantly rendered ones. Surely the time has come to retire “coltish” physiques, “striking” eyes, and “crooked” mouths from fiction’s repertoire of pretty-but-not-too-pretty women’s traits. Ditto for teen girls who are textbook attractive yet think they’re hideous. Such laziness is suspect in any work that wants to be taken seriously. In a novel in which the autonomy of the protagonist’s body is crucially and explicitly at issue, it’s close to inexcusable. For all the attention paid to her conscious complexity, in the end, Turtle comes across less as a person than as an idealized amalgam of strong, sensitive teen girl traits, almost superhuman in her ability to endure (particularly in the novel’s operatic third act). In one scene early in the novel, Brett and Jacob introduce Turtle to Brett’s mother with an endless list of hyperbolic compliments — “We think she might be a ninja” — to which Brett’s mother deadpans: “Well, boys. That’s very evocative.” It’s a genuinely funny moment, in no small part because it flirts with self-satire.

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In Smith’s foundational view of fellow feeling, the body is both a barrier and an entry point to interpersonal understanding. We don’t have that body, but we have a body. When we look at another in pain or in exultation that recognition of shared embodiment is what prompts us to imagine, albeit imperfectly, the things we can’t feel. Oddly, however, the body has often been absent from cultural conversations about empathy. Though we’ve been preoccupied with how to be more empathetic (typical answer: read more novels) and though there’s recently been some empathy pushback (Francesco Pacifico’s new novel Class diagnoses it as a suppression of class vice particularly appealing to contemporary American fiction writers) a single-minded focus on others’ consciousness, on inner life, has tended to obscure the body’s intractable role in our emotional and imaginative engagements. But even when empathy works as we want it to and we imagine our way in to another’s experience (something that happens, perhaps, exclusively in the realm of art) it doesn’t absolve or erase the things other bodies provoke in us. It doesn’t make our body into another’s. It’s appealing to imagine that we learn something about other people when we read scenes of graphic abuse, like those in My Absolute Darling. More often, though, we only confirm something about ourselves.

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Anna E. Clark is an assistant professor of English at Iona College.