Emma Cline is back. What a treat. Her 2016 debut, The Girls, was a huge, hyped monster. A coming-of-age novel set in 1969 California, it was accompanied by the glitz of a seven-figure deal, the juiciness of a Manson murders-inspired storyline, and the craziness of the court battles between Cline and her ex-boyfriend in the aftermath of publication. (He accused her of plagiarism, she counter-sued, there was some stuff about spyware, his case was subsequently dismissed – it was all a bit mad.)
No matter. The Girls lived up to its stardom. It flew off the shelves, won awards, matched its author’s celebrity stride for stride. And it was a damn good piece of writing.
Cline’s second book, Daddy, looks to be a quieter affair. It is a short-story collection and many of the stories have appeared previously in the New Yorker, Granta and the Paris Review. Quiet might be just what Cline needs. The book will sell, certainly, but maybe without a mad frenzy of hype the words on the page will be allowed to sing.
I loved this collection. Spending time with it was like hanging out with a charming serial killer. The characters are mostly abysmal yet there’s a draw to them. Their plight is often drenched in narcissism or entitlement, but Cline so gets into their heads that we almost sympathise.
In Menlo Park, Ben edits the ghostwritten book of a billionaire founder named Arthur. Ben is at a loose end and his melancholy is stark: “A bad feeling in his gut, nothing new.” Ben resents Arthur and his sort for their privilege and success – “Being around people with money wasn’t good for him – rich people made you feel everything was possible, because for them, everything actually was” – but can’t see that he too is a venal person who uses others and taunts his ex-girlfriend with suicide threats.
Similarly, John in What Can You Do with a General is an abusive father who perceives himself as good and perhaps slightly disenfranchised. His adult family has gathered for Christmas and he grumbles about how helpless his grown-up children are. “Now kids got a whole extra decade to do – what? Float around, do these internships,” he muses, while floating around, literally at one point, in a hot tub.
Sentences and scenarios like this abound. We half-like these characters because their observations feel half-true despite the irony simmering beneath.
That the collection begins in a hot tub and ends in “not quite rehab but some way station before rehab” tells you everything. The tone is glossy, hollow. Falsity abounds. We find ourselves in “bright white and shiny” modern retail stores which feel “like being inside a computer”. Christmas store windows are “poxed with fake snow, as if cold was just another joke”. Cars have talking GPS systems that make the passengers feel like they are “inside the woman’s mouth”. Houses have “aprons of lawn”. Hedges wear “military haircuts”.
There’s such precision and depth to the descriptions. Who knew a sentence like “Alice ate an apple for lunch” could feel so perfect? And so emblematic of how women’s bodies have been colonised by capitalism – “there was something nice about the way her stomach would tighten around its own emptiness afterwards”, Cline adds.
It feels like we’re looking at the melancholy of modernity. Characters are individualistic, lonely victims of expectation: “It was almost embarrassing how fervently George had believed that everything would continue to get better and better”. Pills are taken regularly and nonchalantly. At one point a child arrives with “a Ziplock of vitamins”.
There’s no mention of “Trump’s America”, no “identity politics”. There’s an almost unfashionable closeness to the point of view. A character might be more worried that “a certain pair of jeans she loved was not [. . .] as flattering as she imagined it to be” than the structural injustices that might befall her.
One of the most affecting stories is Marion, in which two young girls discover Playboy magazines and try to recreate the scenes for themselves, their games growing ever darker, the ways they perceive the world uncomfortably perverse. “A thirteen-year-old girl. We talked about that a lot [. . .] how Roman Polanski knew her, how it happened [. . .] We were jealous, imagining a boyfriend who wanted you so bad he broke the law.”
A fatalism presides. How could anyone move through this world and come out clean? We’re given no answers, no gestures towards hope. And yet the book feels illuminating. It has respect for its reader. It trusts us to take its ambiguity and live with it. Amid all the falsity, it keeps it real.