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Missed connections – ‘Daddy’

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Emma Cline can WRITE.

Anyone who read her debut, 2016’s excellent “The Girls,” knows all about Cline’s prose gifts. She has a compelling, captivating voice and a real knack for crafting engaging narratives. But while that novel is undeniably excellent, the earliest recognition of her talents came in connection with her short fiction.

Cline’s new book “Daddy” (Random House, $27) celebrates her aptitude for shorter work, 10 stories that delve beneath the surface of the American experience. Each tale is a snapshot of the shadows cast by the outsized and unbalanced power dynamics between friends and colleagues and family members. There’s a palpable hurt at the core of these stories, a recognition of the pain that is seemingly always a heartbeat away.

The people at the center of these stories are all struggling with the grim realities of their situations. Even when the veneer of respectability is still intact, there’s a fundamental and inescapable ugliness there. Sadness and anger are abundant – everyone strives for connection, they find themselves cast adrift, spiraling away from one another even as they yearn for proximity.

That search for closeness takes many forms in “Daddy.” A young woman and aspiring actress starts trying to make ends meet by selling her used underwear on the internet in “Los Angeles.” Life on a farm proves complicated in weird and unexpected ways, thanks to an unsettling brother/sister dynamic and the new husband in the middle – that’s “Arcadia.” Violence implied and implicit floats through many of these stories, though none lean into both so fully as “Northeast Regional.”

In these stories, anger and/or self-involvement interfere with any good faith efforts to engage honestly with the world around us; mistakes are constantly made, though not always recognized as such. Refusal to examine one’s motivations leads to an unwillingness to make the hard choices necessary to move forward, emotionally or otherwise.

Cline also has something of a fascination with fame and those who exist on its fringes. In “The Nanny,” Cline offers up a different sort of perspective on celebrity scandal, taking us inside the head of a nanny whose indiscretions with her movie star employer have become tabloid fodder. “Menlo Park” sees a disgraced writer tasked with telling the story of a mercurial captain of industry even as he comes to terms with his own failings. We get a faded film producer and his once-close movie star pal coming together in a sad approximation of what they used to have in “Son of Friedman.”

“Marion,” a story of a young teen living in a communal situation in a vaguely-defined capacity that is far and away the piece here that most closely resembles “The Girls,” is tightly and specifically structured even as it deftly employs ambiguity with regard to the narrative. It is perhaps the most unlike the others in the collection, yet it feels the most vital to its sense of completion. All of these stories are energetic, but this one is particularly crackling with the kind of desire that Cline is so good at portraying.

There’s a real disconnect between what we believe we want and what we’re willing to do to get it; Cline’s understanding of the fundamental contrarianism that comes with these warring impulses is one of her most significant gifts as a storyteller. From the somewhat unspecified but ever-present anger and angst of an entitled and unapologetic father in the opening story – “What Can You Do with a General” – to the #MeToo flavored anxiety and self-loathing of a high-end rehab center in the closing “A/S/L,” Cline finds myriad ways to bring forth that counterintuitive warts-and-all examination of the human condition.

These stories are unsettling and engrossing, packed with character complexity and dark, cutting wit. Each piece bears up under its own weight even as it serves as part of the larger whole of the collection, though the steady drumbeat of Cline’s tone and thematic choices throughout can border on overwhelming. The preponderance of twisted and hateful men is obvious, but so too is Cline’s reason for displaying them – monsters can only be exposed upon being dragged into the light, their toxicity made public while they struggle to slither back into the shadows. Time and again, it’s made clear – power corrupts … and there are many different kinds of power.

It’s bleak, to be sure; there are glimmers of hope, but the writer has little interest in letting us off the hook, choosing instead to be relentless in her deconstruction of societal and cultural anger. This is not a single-sitting book; instead, it rewards the careful consumption and consideration of its contents one or two at a time, rather than all at once.

“Daddy” is an assemblage of exceptional work from a truly gifted artist. These stories are crafted with razor-sharp care and fueled by emotional challenge; they prove an apt opportunity for Cline to display not just her considerable prose gifts, but a beyond-her-years wisdom regarding the sad truths of the human condition. A worthy and worthwhile collection from a writer for whom the sky really is the limit.

Last modified on Friday, 04 September 2020 11:19

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