In ‘Daddy,’ Emma Cline Delivers Moving Stories of Human Foibles

Lee Polevoi

 

Daddy: Stories

By Emma Cline

Random House

267 pages

 

“If you could just smile a little.”

So asks a store manager of a young female employee for a company photo, but the same request might be made of other characters in Emma Cline’s bleak, yet superbly written story collection, Daddy.

In these stories, we meet characters burdened with a history of oblique misdeeds. They share a persistent loneliness, as well as the nagging feeling they may not be cut out for the task of life in any meaningful way. But there’s charm in their ineptness, although things inevitably darken, and nearly every story ends on a perfect, ambiguous note.

Some of the stories are about strivers in Hollywood, increasingly desperate as time passes them by. In “Son of Friedman,” one such character, a struggling ghostwriter named Ben, flies to Los Angeles to profile Arthur, a wealthy software CEO whose attention span is considerably less than that of a mosquito’s. But being obscenely rich, he’s merely “eccentric,” rather than insane:

“Arthur was in a polo shirt and sweatpants. He had a rubbery face, like a sitcom star dialed up too many notches, and drank water at regular intervals from a metal water bottle clutched in his big paws. He showed Ben a photo of himself with the Pope, which seemed like a joke, in the same way it seemed like a joke when Arthur wrote Ben’s name at the top of a blank piece of paper and underlined it twice.”

 

 

Cline has this stuff down.

In “What Can You Do with a General,” John (one of numerous older men who serve as focal points of the stories) tries to adjust to a nerve-wracking Christmas family reunion on the West Coast. He finds none of his adult children particularly appealing but sprinkled throughout the story are subtle hints that his own past behavior might account for his offspring’s errant ways. Near the story’s end, John experiences something like a revelation, although Cline never presents such moments as clear-cut or self-explanatory:

“It occurred suddenly to him that something was wrong. He sat, unmoving, the wineglass in his hand. He remembered this feeling from childhood, the nights he lay paralyzed in his bottom bunk, hardly breathing from fear, convinced that some evil was gathering itself in the silence, gliding soundlessly toward him. And here it was, he thought, finally, it had come for him. As he had always known it would.”

Passing references to abusive behavior—seen through the veil of John’s delusional point of view—make things seem far more ominous than expected for a story set at Christmas. Cline leaves a lot unsaid, which only adds to the story’s cumulative impact.

Apparently, every generation has to discover for itself just how badly men can behave. It’s not an inspirational message, but in Daddy, it’s delivered with impeccably rendered atmospherics, revealing internal monologues, and wry back-and-forth conversations. Each story is a gem and not to be missed.

 

 

Cline is inordinately fond of the word “vague,” used throughout the book in various forms—a “vaguely corporate color scheme,” “the respectful but vaguely menacing distance,” “anything vaguely European,” and so on. Clearly, the author apprehends life in general and adult relationships in particular as often “vague” in nature, but untypically, she relies a bit too much on the word and concept.

Set against the overwhelming power of these stories, this is a small quibble.

Emma Cline, author of the acclaimed novel, The Girls, has written an impressive collection. Her work may not uplift and inspire every reader, but whoever said life is easy? Like many of the best writers, Cline proves that beauty and artistic satisfaction can be found in even the tawdriest and most “vaguely” reprehensible situations.

 

Author Bio:

Lee Polevoi, Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic, recently completed a new novel, The Confessions of Gabriel Ash.

For Highbrow Magazine

 

Image Sources:

--Random House

--Pxfuel (Creative Commons)

--Thomas Wolf (Wikipedia, Creative Commons)

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