Random House/2020 /288 pp. /27.00
Reviewed by Brent Coughenour
The first noticeable feature of Emma Cline’s Daddy is the cover. Glossy, simple, adorned in swaths of yellow and minute blue font, the cover evokes an arthouse film poster, perhaps an appropriate comparison given the SoCal setting of many of the short stories collected within. Like the cover’s illusive simplicity, the title of the collection is similarly provocative. Readers question this title before opening the book: Can we interpret it as sexual, or is it meant to be taken strictly paternally? Is this collection centered around the relationships between fathers and their children (a few stories do lend that interpretation), or is the term substituting a more mature meaning? Cline implores her reader to question the word’s significance and uses the misleading banality of the cover and the title to invite her audience to consider what other secrets lie within the collection’s pages.
The stories in Daddy—Emma Cline’s follow-up to her 2016 debut novel The Girls, which netted her a two-million-dollar book deal—feature protagonists in constant motion, their stories only brief interludes in full lives. All ten, unlinked, stories in Daddy feel fresh, reflecting contemporary concerns like the malaise of fading youth, modern day sex work, and life Los Angeles. The characters that populate these stories, from a “clinically sad” man reckoning with a divorce in “Mack the Knife” to the fading television producer that leads “Menlo Park,” are confined to their pages, giving each tale a sense of invasion, as though readers are spying on them, little consideration given to what came before, the present being the primary concern. Cline’s emphasis on the here-and-now is reflected in all of her characters, their contemporality manifesting as considerate, cold, simplistic, and naïve in alternating turns.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Cline’s “Los Angeles.” Told from the close third-person perspective of Alice—an LA transplant, like Cline—“Los Angeles” explores the ephemerality of youth and the lengths that someone will go to in order to hold onto their carefree teenage years just a little longer. Alice, implied to be in her mid-twenties, moves to LA to pursue acting but finds herself working at a clothing store, dressing in too-tight clothing, peddling too-expensive clothing to Angelenos who object to cost before buying the clothes anyway. This Los Angeles is vapid yet beautiful; told through Alice’s eyes, the city is a “fine alternative” to her unidentified hometown and a place where even the impoverished housing looks lovely in the sunlight, although it is populated by self-serving men and women that Alice simultaneously loathes and wants to be loved by. Alice works with Oona, a seventeen-year-old antithesis described as more attractive and carefree than herself, and she envies Oona’s sex-positive lifestyle, particularly Oona’s easygoing willingness to sell her used underwear to men on the internet. After acting flames out, Alice follows suit, and it’s this newfangled sex work that drives the plot.
Though she jumps headfirst into this venture, Alice is never completely comfortable with the lifestyle, despite her self-assurances that she is unaffected. Alice attempts to calm her psyche: “It was that time of life when any time something bad or strange or sordid happened, she could soothe herself with that thing people always said: it’s just that time of life.” After a few months of uneventful sales, the story ends with Alice selling her underwear to a man in a parking lot, who asks that she get in the car with him to perform the transaction. She obliges, but, after she collects her money, the door will not open, and Alice anticipates “great violence” coming to her, believing she will become a victim of her own circumstance. Tellingly, the final word of “Los Angeles” belongs not to Alice, but to the man she’s worried will cause her harm: “Just stop, you’re only making it worse.” Alice interprets this as her fault, as if she has brought this upon herself, the decisions she’s made only making her life, her youth, less worthwhile. Cline earlier tells us that this is the last time that Alice sells her underwear, but there is no other resolution, ending “Los Angeles” in a moment of pure terror.
By the end of most stories in Daddy, Cline’s protagonists find themselves in precarious situations—in “What Can You Do With A General,” a father strains to overhear his daughter’s phone conversation, desperate to reconnect; in “A/S/L,” a young woman ponders whether she ruined someone’s sobriety; and in “Marion” the thirteen-year-old narrator in the midst of her sexual awakening is assured by her friend’s father that everything will be okay in an uncomfortably tactile moment.
He could feel it, he said, a thrumming in the trees and all around, could feel that
things were falling apart from the inside.
“You’re a sweet girl,” he said, his hand on my shoulder. ‘You’re better than all of them.”
Cline’s audience is left to wonder where the characters might go, what other adventures they might find, and what their fates might be. As in life, characters are too complex; their full portraits cannot be painted in thirty pages. But if we are to judge these stories based on the changes depicted in their protagonists—that age-old barometer of what defines a short story—then Cline is second-to-none, better than almost any other writer at putting her characters through the ringer. At the character level, best laid plans fall into place, and momentum—the anticipation of change—is established, even if the audience does not see the full repercussions of a character’s choices. When these stories reach their conclusions, interpretation is subjective, as with the title of the collection. In the twinkling, ambiguous Los Angeles of her stories, Cline shares equal billing with readers, serving as their tour guide and confidante, pulling back the curtain, and letting them decide the meaning of her secrets.
Brent Coughenour graduated from Spalding University with his Master of Fine Arts in Fiction in 2021, and is currently serving as the Dean and General Education Instructor at Mid-America College of Funeral Service in Jeffersonville, Indiana. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky with his wife and their cats.