In The Dark Sides of Empathy, the social critic Fritz Breithaupt questions popular notions of empathy. He contends that empathy, though often considered a prerequisite for positive social change, is also a relatively new concept. Breithaupt argues that empathy has the potential to cause atrocities—not out of a lack of identification with the other, but due to an over-identification with those like ourselves.
Amanda Goldblatt takes a slightly more ambivalent approach toward empathy in her debut novel Hard Mouth, recently released by Counterpoint Press. In the novel’s first chapter, Denny—the novel’s protagonist—is compelled by her father to show empathy after she crushes her mother’s treasured heirloom bracelet. Denny remains detached from the situation in a cool voice typical of the book, saying: “While I didn’t learn empathy from the bracelet business, I did learn that I was curious about what life might do to me. Throughout my days I have learned to turn this curiosity on and off, switch-like. It’s all part of my parable. Also I learned to invent what I could not feel. And finally: people and things die.”
Whether Denny realizes it or not, in this passage she learns a distinct method for recognizing the emotions of others. In a way, she also experiences the darker aspects of empathy akin to Breithaupt’s notions. After Denny learns that her father has declined treatment for his cancer, she leaves town and retreats into the woods: “It was difficult not to think of him as a function of my own tragedy.” Through Denny’s process of evasion and invention of feeling, Goldblatt skillfully constructs a larger parable about empathy as the author blurs the boundary between care for the other and care for the self. Denny may not want to show empathy, but she finds herself doing so for the people she is prone to over-identify with. Were it not for the first-person narrative frame, her escape might be read as a major moral transgression. Despite the fact that her father is the one suffering, the tragedy is regarded by Denny as her own.
It’s fitting that the narrative voice demonstrates duality: detachment and sensitivity, warmth and self-indulgence. Goldblatt’s writing is both tender and linguistically textured; every sentence is its own acoustic experience. The effect leaves the reader rapt. Much can be said about the strength of Goldblatt’s prose, but her writing at times speaks for itself: “I was aware that if he wanted to kill me—with his sugar-rope limbs, and his blady disposition—there was not a person could stop him. I was sticky and delicate as pudding skin.” The voice here is indulgent, but carefully and radiantly so. Denny’s character is defined by her self-indulgence, so why should her voice not work similarly?
Though the quality of the prose is consistent throughout, the story does sag in the middle. It’s a shortcoming that is neither surprising nor uncommon for a story of this nature. Once Denny leaves her family home and isolates herself in the woods, maintaining the narrative velocity becomes difficult. With no human interaction and fewer props for Denny to quarrel with, the tension loosens. The novel leans on analepsis to maintain the pacing. It’s perhaps an unavoidable problem, and to Goldblatt’s credit, she cleverly provides Denny with an imaginary friend named Gene. His purpose will bewilder, but Gene provides opportunities for scene work and drama in the midst of Denny’s self-imposed isolation. He offers readers humor in the first part of the novel, but ultimately serves as a priceless narrative tool in the novel’s second part.
Gene’s role may best embody the humor Goldblatt deploys throughout the novel. His personality is vaudevillian, but he is a torturous figure in Denny’s life. As a result, Hard Mouth is as darkly funny as its characters, modulating between entertaining and disturbing tonal registers. Maybe this is the crux of the text. If something as seemingly innocuous as an imaginary friend can carry a dark undertow with it, why can’t empathy? Contradictory through and through, Hard Mouth is a novel that may appear dispassionate, but it is an exceptionally complex text on the nature of empathy. Literature, like life, isn’t always nice. In the case of Hard Mouth, readers are all the better for it.
By Amanda Goldblatt
Published August 13, 2019
Garrett Biggs grew up in California. These days, he is the Jeff Metcalf Humanities in the Community Fellow at the University of Utah. More of his work can be found at garrettbiggs.net.