When we meet him, the first father in Emma Cline’s story collection Daddy is just chilling on the patio, eating salami off a paper plate, dressed California casual in “jeans, his white socks, his white sneakers, a knitted sweater.” The sweater almost definitely belongs to his wife, Linda, but John is too old to worry over silly things like necklines. “Who would care?” John considers himself a simple creature, but there are many hints that this man can’t be trusted to know himself. As he putters around, Cline plants suggestions of his violent temper: how his default stress response is to “knock things over,” how he used to throw food at his oldest daughter when she wouldn’t eat it, and how that daughter, age 9, called the police on him. John doesn’t divulge why any of this happened and hardly approaches coming to terms with whatever it was—“he guessed it would have been after one of the bad periods—though Cline obviously wants us to wonder why. What did this sexless father, dreaming only of filial affection, do or not do to his family? John isn’t totally clueless, but “these things seemed so far away,” he thinks. “And then eventually they got further away, and then nobody talked about them anymore.” In other words, who still cares? The past has passed. John remembers the Disney movies his children once loved, in which “the fathers were basically Jesus, the kids crowding around whenever the dad came into a room, hanging off his neck.” That he is not “basically Jesus,” pains him enough to compel him to open three bottles of wine, but his sins are anyone’s guess.
If only psychic resolution were as straightforward as assuming nobody cares. Never mind that processing just isn’t something any of Cline’s characters do; by the time we encounter them, it seems either too soon or too late to try. This impasse is rendered at times too bluntly, but perhaps that’s the best way to render an impasse, especially for characters as emotionally impaired as these—famous people, movie people, young people. These stories suffer from bad timing in that they’re about men who date much younger women, sweet-faced teens just discovering porn and that their own bodies are perhaps wonderlands, old men living in the past, and girls who say things like, “Men love that.” These characters and their wrongdoings are best understood as parts of a larger project, united by Cline’s persistent interest in sidling into the minds of the guilty, the complicit, the canceled. You have to understand, as one of Cline’s several aging Hollywood executives might say over steepled fingers, there are predominantly two ideas in development here: Everyone is guilty, and no one is innocent. Guilty of some things, sure. But these characters obsess over whether theirs will “turn out to be a bad story or a good one.” Such moralizing would be too easy, and Cline, a former child actor, disdains Hollywood endings—“the prevailing story, the cliché.”
In an essay for The Guardian, the author remembers movie sets as places where “precise falsehoods were vastly preferable to the indignities and messes of real life.” She writes her own fictions toward these messes with a corrective and contrarian zeal. Narrators who would be considered survivors elsewhere think of themselves as perpetrators; predators regard themselves as victims. Characters tend to hover just outside themselves (written falsehoods remain a solid medium for conveying disassociation), their innermost thoughts appearing as truth-booth questions that require a witness to mean anything. “Who would feel bad for her?” “Did she know about him?” “Wasn’t that what parents were supposed to do?” In a collection so densely populated with the wrongdoings of the rich and the influential, this interrogative impulse seems to challenge the objectivity of reported narratives. It also asks us to consider the inner lives of the accused and accusers and whether these characters might be more alike than one might like to entertain the possibility of, even in fiction.
Cline was reading about how Harvey Weinstein spent his last days of relative freedom compulsively googling himself when she was moved to write “White Noise,” a baffling fictionalization of these final hours written from his perspective, which was published in The New Yorker this summer and is conspicuously absent from Daddy. Detractors will say that Cline has a weakness for humanizing despicable men. Actually, she said that herself. She found this image of Weinstein “piteous and human,” and more alarming than any phantom idea of an “Evil Man.” Though it should come as no surprise that Weinstein is a human and that fictional characters are not (but writers dependably hope to render them so), like any extended delusion, this story requires a blinkered frame of mind to work. In Cline’s alternative reality (she reportedly abstained from looking up Weinstein’s biographical details while writing, working instead from what she already “vaguely knew”), he spends this time high on ketamine in a Connecticut home, cozy in the delusion that he’s going to wring buckets of meaning and cash from filming the unfilmable: an adaptation of a celebrated Don DeLillo novel. Some readers must have been tickled by the position reading this story afforded them—knowing, perhaps in part from following Ronan Farrow’s reporting in the same pages, that Weinstein is guilty but reading on to see what crises of conscience, if any, Cline thought to impose on and around her version of him.
As with her debut novel, The Girls—which fictionalized the Manson family murders from the perspective of one of the cult members instead of the ringleader—“White Noise” is written in the grain of once current events. As required by historical fiction, readers ought to suspend disbelief, but it’s even better to play dumb, to willfully forget or ignore any conflicting facts of public record that may tempt to distract from this half-novel rendition. As one character in Daddy reminds us, caring about “the minutiae of historical events” is boring. These stories will most acutely affect those who, rightly or righteously, haven’t read further than headlines in the past five or six years.
In Daddy, Cline lingers on stale remnants and dated, embarrassing details. Or the golden days in the minds of her myriad fathers. This seems to be a function of how aged some of her narrators are but also demonstrates that anything can be anachronistic if you stare at it longer than might be comfortable. Cline’s best lines point out cultural ephemera to satisfying and accusatory effect. A teenage boy’s surf posters are “like porn about the color blue.” The rare non-LED light bulb is “a remnant of a kind of gaudy, old-school pleasure it was no longer fashionable to enjoy,” and burgundy hair is “associated with 1993.” Outfits look like costumes: A wool sweater makes a young woman “feel like a newsie,” while a group of women in their 30s look “like they should be scrubbing laundry a hundred years ago.” It’s hardly worth mentioning that John’s white-on-white-on-denim look is redolent of a tired meme about how certain family guys dress.
But at the same time, we’re reading staunchly into the present day (or the closest thing to the present the publishing apparatus can approximate). With the exception of “Marion”—Cline’s 2014 Plimpton Prize–winning story that does everything The Girls does but better and with less space—the stories in Daddy trigger recent public memory. “Northeast Regional” recalls a mash-up of the college admissions scandals and hazing horror stories, “Los Angeles” takes us behind the scenes of the abuses of American Apparel corporate culture, and several other stories follow affairs with built-in power imbalances having to do with age, gender, and the workplace that we all know to scan for by now, both on and off the page.
Cline identifies the imaginative gaps necessarily left by reportage but is in no hurry to fill them. These stories read like freshly broken news, not least because of their familiar subject matter but also in their delicacy and euphemism. Cline’s writing circles bad behavior. John’s story is typical in its avoidance of the events at its center, where facts become feelings and opinions—the messy subjectivities Cline at first seems to be after. Elsewhere, another father makes an appearance at an elite East Coast boarding school to learn just how his son put another boy in the hospital (“The story”—details withheld—“was awful, perverse, made his gut tighten”) while taking care to discourage “any kind of future lawsuit.” Some will appreciate Cline’s tact, but others might wish she cared to make our guts tighten here instead of relaying how we might feel should we ever get directly in touch with her source. The unnamed act seems more lurid by omission, the involved parties inscrutable. Later, we see the father lash out, but all he says is “cunt,” which could mean anything. One can truly only imagine what these people are going through. But isn’t this—imagining what people who don’t exist are going through—supposed to be the author’s job, and the point of fiction? That it’s not bound by libel law?
If Cline’s reader is sometimes invited to play dumb, her characters enact it too, often as an aspect of self-fashioning. In “A/S/L,” Thora, a woman in her 30s addicted to catfishing men, adopts the persona of an underage cheerleader. The men are delighted by her supposed stupidity and explaining how sex works. Thora likes the “knowing/unknowing” of her role so much that she ends up in a posh rehab with a sexual predator celebrity chef and takes offense when he isn’t interested in her. But it’s more than offense; it’s a sick entitlement, denied when he goes off script by keeping to himself. “Didn’t he know that Thora knew every awful thing he had done? Every darkness that hid in his heart had been exposed.” With this, Cline wonders where the power of secrecy goes when private acts become public knowledge and ends up refuting that knowledge is power at all. In “The Nanny,” Cline reverses this search. Kayla the nanny refrains from googling Rafe the movie star in order to preserve the private texture of their affair. She wants to hear the bullet points of his IMDb page straight from the source. Kayla calls this approach “pretended unknowing,” which she continues to pursue with paparazzi in mind after their liaison’s very public dissolution. She sucks in her stomach, expecting the cameras to come out when she least expects them.
Like many of the men in Daddy, Ben, the bicoastal narrator of “Menlo Park” spends a lot of time wondering whether people he meets know about “everything he’d allegedly done.” Somehow, he still thinks the world owes him an apology, because “many of the women pursued him.” Ben identifies as “unhireable,” following some vague sexual misconduct and an ouster from his job editing a magazine that highlights the fabulous homes of one-percenters. Nevertheless, he freelances. Ben is brought on to help a failed but still ultrawealthy tycoon turned lifestyle guru edit (and falsify) his biography so it reads like “a hero’s journey” rather than a string of Securities and Exchange Commission violations. In a focal scene, his sorry conscience seems to surface as an injurious contact lens. He raises a hand to his weeping right eye, and “touched the wetness, convinced it would be blood.” But there’s nothing there—it was all in his head. And Cline’s spare deadpan about Ben’s inability to see himself clearly excuses her from going deeper than a jab. Other characters surprise themselves by crying real tears. Like the 11-year-old narrator of “Marion” when she’s forced to part with her best friend, a 13-year-old with whom she used to discuss Roman Polanski’s lechery. “My face was wet and I was hiccupping, but I didn’t feel like I was crying.” And our old man John when a single day on medication makes him manic for yard work and gets him elbow deep in gutter muck. “When he’d wiped his cheek with his shirtsleeve, it came back damp. His whole face was wet.” Somatic responses just keep happening to these characters whether they like it or not, deserve it or not—all these wet faces, like participation awards in some human race.
Cline’s basic proposal that we’re all depraved is not at all far-fetched. But blanking on the evidence sensationalizes this idea. Part of the problem—or heightening the tabloid effect—is that she refrains from chaperoning her characters through turmoil. They don’t know how they feel about their misdeeds, and at key moments, she just steps back and wonders. Alternatively, she overuses “suddenly” to signal revelation, despite the care and control with which she tracks the movements of people in space, eyes flicked away, beads of sweat. This hands-off method seems meant to give things room to play out fast and loose, but by deferring to her narrators, she does herself a disservice. Readers (i.e., witnesses, bystanders) are also made to watch and speculate. This is fine if one reads primarily to be entertained or feel superior, and we already know that Cline isn’t interested in teaching life lessons. But if approximating the real world is her goal, a surer approach might start with establishing humanity as a drab uniform rather than asking and never answering who wields it worst.