© 2021 WFAE
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
NPR Arts & Life

'Daddy' Dwells In The Moments After Something Awful Happens

Daddy, by Emma Cline

The title of Emma Cline's first collection of short stories and sophomore book, Daddy, tells us more about what the work lacks than what it contains. The fathers in Cline's stories perform their familial duties with little sincerity or gusto.

In "Northeast Regional," Richard is more concerned with how he appears as a father than actually parenting his teenage son Rowan. A violent incident involving Rowan and a schoolmate forces Richard to go retrieve him from his private boarding school and thus reflect on his fitness as a father: "He called him every once in a while, or pinged off a series of texts ... They were useless missives, but he felt he had to make these offerings. If there was a reckoning, a moment when they demanded to see the record, he could present these messages." When it's all said and done, Richard wants to know it looks like he tried.

John, a father with a violent past in "What Can You Do With A General," reminisces wistfully on the movies his children used to love, ones with fathers who were "basically Jesus," with the kids "hanging off his neck ... almost swooning." Passively, you get the sense he desires this from his own adult-children. Actively, he marvels at how easily he can drop a veil between him and "this group of people who were his family" until they're obscured enough that he can "love them."

Redemption is not the end game here ... How do the chips fall once the executive has been fired, the affair is made public, the drug habit becomes destructive?

Cline's characters live in the shapeless shadows of their misdeeds. The attack, which Rowan gets expelled for, goes unexplained. We know John's drinking and subsequent temper got as bad as they did only because he shares an ultimatum from his wife — therapy or divorce. In "Menlo Park," Ben edits the autobiography of a tech mogul after being removed by the board of the magazine he used to run. We know women replaced him at the publication (the horror) and that his wife left him. We know Ben is basically unemployable — but Cline never lays out exactly what salacious acts led to his removal. Her stories never reveal the dark underbelly of the wrongdoings; she is less concerned with the traumatic details than what happens in the aftermath of the unspeakable.

It's satisfying to know the where, why, and how of it all — but Cline doesn't walk you through the crime scene. She won't convince you that her characters' misdeeds are absolvable, but she's equally uninterested in blaming them for their fumblings. There are no sweeping statements about how we should treat those who have caused harm on the micro or macro scale. Redemption is not the end game here. The causes and conditions that lead characters to act on impulse are not as compelling as the shape life takes once desire has been fully realized and thus is no longer desire at all. How do the chips fall once the executive has been fired, the affair is made public, the drug habit becomes destructive?

We learn more about the chatrooms Thora frequents than we do about the drug habit that landed her in rehab in "A/S/L." Conjuring up an 18-year-old identity, Thora enjoys sending nudes to men on the internet. When that becomes boring, she pivots and changes her username to "DaddyXO" and masquerades as a man, swapping nudes with other men: "They sent her photos of teens in bikinis at public pools and she sent them photos of herself. Such a whore, she typed. Little teen whore." Her drug addiction, the very reason she's in rehab, is a sideshow to the story of how she cosplays as both victim and pedophile.

At the end of "A/S/L" Thora returns home and resolves to make changes both big and small: To stay away from the chatrooms, to brush her teeth before her husband James gets home from work. But when James is late for dinner one night, Thora feels "whatever she had felt earlier ... already slipping away, already gone." Later that night, in bed, James reaches up to scratch an eye stye: "His hand crept towards his swollen eye, then paused in midair. She saw his desire to do something ... then saw him understand that he should not ... and for James, that was enough — he did not do the thing he wanted to do ... Instead, James blinked hard ... He smiled at her, a tear dripping from the eye he offered to her for inspection. 'Any better?'"

In James and Thora's bed, we see what defines many of Cline's characters — they're the people who cannot resist the impulse to scratch, the impulse to do what they want. Being told not to is not enough. Thora is both unenthused and jealous of James's adherence to the rules, to what is "right." For him, it's enough to listen to the powers that be. For her, desire is not tamable nor is it dismissible. Cline doesn't push too hard on whether her characters' adherence to their desire is good or bad, immoral or admirable. While the disruptive decisions that change lives are titillating, they are not in fact where most of life is actually lived. Cline's stories show what happens if the eye is scratched — desire is replaced with its consequences, which are both mundane and insurmountable all at once.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.