Emma Cline Makes Literary Comeback With “Daddy”

By Jasmyne Ray

Daddy issues, relationships with the patriarchy, and tormented inner children are the subjects for Cline’s collection of short stories. With blunt honesty and quick wit, Cline explores each main character’s relationship with power, authority, and control–their lack or abundance of it, their combative or submissive nature, and, most interestingly, what they will or won’t do for it.

Cline’s second release contains ten short stories, some previously published in different literary publications. No one character is constant throughout the collection, yet four of the stories feature a father as its main character, neither are they set in the same time or place. What they do have in common, however, is that each main character’s narrative begins shortly after or years after a pivotal incident in their life. What follows is how they attempt to come to terms with who they are or what they did.

The first entry, “What Can You Do With a General,” was the only story in the collection to come close to my initial assumption of its subject. With his now adult children begrudgingly home for the holidays, a father is nostalgic for the past when they were more loving. However, as he reminisces on what he believes were tender moments with his children and wife, fragments of his past violent and aggressive behaviors refract off of the sunshine of the good ol’ days.

The theme shifts from authority to control in the next story, “Los Angeles,” which follows an aspiring actress as she begins selling her underwear online for extra money. She goes from feeling somewhat ashamed of what she’s doing, to reveling in the power she gets from taking the stranger’s money. Power comes into play in “Menlo Park,” where the frustrated editor of a billionaire’s biography begins to ponder over his own shortcomings, as the billionaire seems bent on rewriting life events as he feels they should have happened, rather than how they did.

You may recall Cline’s literary debut came in 2016 with her novel, The Girls, which follows a young girl in the ’70s as she gets swept up into the whirlwind of a cult and their enigmatic leader. Cline’s style of narrative, while not as descriptive, and leaving some loose ends, can be compared to the that of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Moshfegh’s unnamed protagonist longs for the peace that only comes from a deep REM sleep cycle, refusing to listen to the well-intentioned reasoning of her lone friend.

Similarly to Daddy, Janet Fitch’s White Oleander reads like a collection of short stories although it’s a novel. Astrid, the protagonist, is plunged into both the foster care system and a journey to self-discovery after living her entire childhood with her nomadic poet mother. Astrid’s experience in each foster home could read as its own entry.

Throughout Daddy, the main character in each story has their unique flaws, of course through no fault of their own. While they may be wading in the aftermath of a significant incident, it seems like Cline wrote them in a way to allow the reader to have the final verdict on their character. For example, in “The Nanny,” initially Cline omits details of the main character’s affair with the husband of the family she worked for. In the aftermath, she comes off as unappreciative of the refuge family friends have offered her while hanging on to the memories of the husband over the duration of their affair. Yet, in others like “Northeast Regional,” as the main character looks back on time spent with her first “real” friend, she remembers a pivotal moment in their friendship the same way her 11-year-old self would have. In this case, the reader can determine that while the main character is not to blame, they still haven’t come to terms with what happened.

I recommend Daddy to readers who don’t read regularly. For those individuals who either don’t have the time or interest to sit down with a whole novel, short story collections are just as fulfilling. With Cline’s collection and the way she leaves the reader wondering what happens to each character, it provides the same fulfillment, without the large page count.

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