Gabriel Tallent’s debut novel, My Absolute Darling, charts the murky, awful territory of abuse and the strange, hard road to survival. Teenaged Turtle—raised by her poisonous father, Martin, in his separatist/survivalist ideology and skillset, on the California coast—must figure out what exactly she must do to get out.
Extra Crispy: What did you have for breakfast this morning?
Gabriel Tallent: I had oats simmered in milk with cut up strawberries and honey. I listen to NPR while I make breakfast and when it’s done I get to work and I drink black coffee while I work.
Is that a normal breakfast for you?
Yeah, fairly normal. I’m a great admirer of a big breakfast, with fried eggs, bacon and hash browns, but I try and keep that somewhat rare. I try and write in the morning but sometimes if I’m climbing I will have some fruit and Fig Newtons on my way out the door and, when I get back, I’ll have a smoothie with blueberries and oats and milk and whey. I drink coffee every day that I work, but I won’t drink coffee if I’m not working.
I was really struck by a scene where Turtle and her father Martin are eating breakfast at the MacCallum House overlooking Mendocino Bay. Turtle is served a breakfast burrito that seems at once opulent (“heaped with salmon caviar and garnished with nasturtium flowers and pea shoots”) and grotesque (“severed open, spilling its contents”). It's a pivotal moment in the book--it's a reunion for Martin and Turtle, and a prelude to Turtle meeting a new girl that Martin has brought home. What made you want to set that scene over breakfast, and an especially fancy breakfast at that?
It was a strategy I’d seen abusive and controlling narcissists use before. It is part of that pattern of courtship and subjugation, a pattern often expressed through food, the corollary to which would be Turtle’s periods of fasting and her preference for foraged foods. There are other reasons. At the house and on the beach, Martin’s absence is keenly felt. But at a restaurant, the roles are reversed. Being treated puts her on her back foot, and it is Turtle who feels stranded and ill-at-ease. They even appear as if they do not belong. It’s a visual representation of Martin’s argument that they are outsiders in a culture hostile to them.
So much of this book is about the dense tangle of fear and hatred and love and attachment that is unavoidable when abuse takes place within a family. What about the complicated relationship between Turtle and Martin drew you to their story?
I wanted to write about resistance. I have always been interested in the act of putting together your life, and of how to live a good life. When I wrote Turtle, I wrote toward that, towards the story of how we resist when we are divided within ourselves. But in Turtle’s circumstance, I found something else––a man who is destroying the thing he loves, who by turns can see that clearly, and who by turns refuses to see it and denies that such a thing is possible. In that, there also seemed something worth writing about, a meaningful thing to be said about who we are as a culture right now, and what the hell we’re doing with ourselves.