The author of The Girls returns with 10 short stories exploring characters as they navigate power dynamics in families and in relationships, celebrity, and the distance between their true and false selves.
In an era whose ascendant short-story practitioners lean into high-concept experiments of genre and form, Emma Cline represents something of a throwback. The 10 stories that constitute her first collection, Daddy, are almost classical in structure—you won’t find a fragmentary collage, list or screenplay among them. Though she’s not one for a sudden, curious departure of voice or dissolution of the fourth wall, Cline has an unnerving narrative proprioception, and her stories have the clean, bright lines of modernist architecture ... As for her style, she seems to eschew the telegraphic mode made popular by writers like Sally Rooney or Rachel Cusk for something at once direct and musical. Cline’s idiom is earnestness punctuated by millennial cool—but nothing too fussy, everything in just the right place ... The aesthetic pleasure of Cline’s writing is anesthetizing. So much so that one could conceivably read these stories with the same drugged passivity with which one shuffles through a lifestyle catalog. But that would be a mistake ... Cline is an astonishingly gifted stylist, but it is her piercing understanding of modern humiliation that makes these stories vibrate with life ... the characters shift uncomfortably through the beautifully appointed shoe box dioramas of their lives, aware at once of their own insignificance and also of their desire for prominence. They ask if anything matters as though nothing does, and yet hope to be contradicted. But perhaps we all do. Perhaps, in these brilliant stories, that is the most daring and human thing of all.
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 ... It feels like we’re looking at the melancholy of modernity. Characters are individualistic, lonely victims of expectation ... 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.
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 ... 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 ... Detractors will say that Cline has a weakness for humanizing despicable men. Actually, she said that herself ... Cline lingers on stale remnants and dated, embarrassing details. Or the golden days in the minds of her myriad fathers ... 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.