‘Daddy,’ by Emma Cline book review


Overall, “Daddy” has a different feel than Cline’s best-selling novel, though there are certainly connections; the seedy Manson character from that book could easily fit into this gallery of unsavory “daddies.” Two of the 10 stories deal with the power structure of female friendships, as does “The Girls,” and Cline again shows her skill at evoking Southern California settings and atmosphere. The big difference is that “The Girls” lets you identify with and like the main character. Most of the stories in “Daddy,” seven previously published in the New Yorker, Granta or the Paris Review, do not.

Six of the 10 focus on privileged men in middle age. These characters, depicted through a young female author’s eyes, bring to mind the sleazy record producer Lou Kline in Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit From the Goon Squad” and A.M. Homes’s Richard Novak in “This Book Will Save Your Life,” also both Californians. Redemption for such fellows is not impossible, but it is rare, and Cline is not inclined to be lenient.

The opening story, “What You Can Do With a General,” centers on John, an older dad whose relationships with his adult children, his ailing dog (Zero has recently had an operation to insert a pacemaker) and his wife, Linda, are all fairly tenuous, made painfully clear by a family gathering at Christmastime. Cline often characterizes (or makes fun of) people in terms of their preferred entertainment: Linda reads memoirs by mothers of school shooters and a girl kidnapped and kept in a backyard shed for years. John prefers to be soothed by endless episodes of a TV show about a pair of older women and their “mild travails” in a beach town he takes to be Santa Barbara, Calif.

We stay in John’s head, where things are bleak. He muses on the awfulness of keeping his poor dog alive in “emotional servitude” to the family, on his disappointment in his children — “How much better off they’d have been in Vermont or New Hampshire or one of those states where the cost of living was cheap, where the kids could have done 4-H and gone to community college . . . ” — on the “neutering of his anger.” He tries to gin up some group nostalgia with home movies, but nobody has really recovered from what the reader starts to figure out were abusive incidents in the family’s past.

“Menlo Park” features Ben, a disgraced former magazine editor, traveling to meet with his also-disgraced tech-billionaire client, for whom he is to edit a memoir, one the client delusionally envisions as a “hero’s journey.” The billionaire has an assistant whose brusque treatment of Ben seems to indicate she knows his story. Like a reformed smoker who is almost waiting for a tragedy bad enough to make bumming a cigarette forgivable, Ben adds a ridiculous new page to the catalogue of things that make you feel so sorry for yourself you can give your superego the day off.

In “Son of Friedman,” a washed-up Hollywood director in his 70s has invited his successful old friend — once upon a time, their wives shopped for Oscar dresses together — to the premiere screening of his son’s first film, which they both helped fund. It turns out to be “basically a music video of the Beatles’ greatest hits” interspersed with interviews with “what appeared to be many adjunct faculty members of Santa Monica City College.” It almost seems cruel to laugh — many of Cline’s stories live on the edge of that “almost.”

The female protagonists get a better deal, and the friendship stories are my two favorites. “Marion” first brought Cline into the public eye, winning the Plimpton Prize from the Paris Review in 2014, the same year she finished the manuscript of her $2 million baby. It is the story of an 11-year-old and a 13-year-old running loose at the older girl’s parents’ ranch in the hills, the teenager plunging down every possible path out of childhood, her friend eager to follow.

“A/S/L” (this stands for “age, sex, location” and is used in sex-oriented chat rooms) is set at a mellow luxury rehab, where Thora has been sent to keep her out of said chat rooms. There she and her roommate, Ally, attempt to cope with the exquisitely curated boredom. “Ally and Thora watched a Ken Burns documentary about national parks. This alone seemed to take years off their lives.” Then G., a disgraced celebrity chef, shows up about the same time as a litter of puppies. Finally, some ways to get in trouble.

Celebrity again plays a role in “The Nanny,” whose protagonist is hiding out from the aftermath of her job-ending affair with a famous actor. Again, the of-the-moment setup is intriguing, Cline’s wit is on point and her writing is evocative and seductive. She excels at describing colors: “The surf posters on every wall showed men, pink-nippled and tan, on boards in the middle of huge, almost translucent waves. The posters were like porn about the color blue.”

So, will my Campari-swilling friend like “Daddy”? I think it has less to do with whether she enjoyed “The Girls” than with her enthusiasm for stories about unlikable people. I could not help feeling discouraged by the author’s coldness toward her male characters. Nonetheless, the book is so well-written — not to mention short — and just elusive enough that I find myself wanting to reread the stories, to think about them, to talk to someone about them. So, Campari girl, the answer is: Give it a shot.

Daddy

Random House. 288 pp. $27



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