Whether confronted with failures at work, with women or as parents, these men are usually defensive, self-deluding and numb with pills and drink. I’ll be interested in how convinced middle-aged male reviewers are, but I found Cline’s insights persuasive, even if the territory does become repetitive.
The relentless privilege on display ultimately flattens out the reading experience, interest waning as a story introduces another rich old man or media player, another private school or house in the hills.
But Cline tracks shifts in power and influence – the desire to hold on to and wield them and the pathetic “whiff of insecurity” in those that have lost them – very well.
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.
In Daddy, Cline captures unflinchingly the rocky recalibrations at work in sexual culture. What saves the book from the pitfalls of the generic – from being a series of exercises on contemporary life – is her remarkable ability to plunge us, suddenly, into a world so finely contoured, so throbbing with specificity, that it swells and obliquely speaks volumes.
Some of the most interesting pieces focus on men, middle-aged or older, seen through a post-Me Too lens. Cline rummages through their blinkered psyches, exposing grim defiance, arrogance, boorishness, a lack of self-awareness and, ultimately, a weird, sometimes pathetic vulnerability. What Can You Do With a General is a standout. As his dysfunctional adult children return for Christmas, a father remains wilfully oblivious to the impact his aggressive past behaviour has had on them. Cline is particularly good at locking in the witty detail that speaks volumes, and here it is the long-suffering mother’s reading matter: memoirs by the mothers of school shooters or girls who were kidnapped and kept in sheds for years.
Cline is an astute observer of the social rhythms of the upper middle class, particularly of those in the entertainment and creative industries. Her characters hum with cranky, human specificity. They don’t feel like caricatures or scapegoats, and their anxieties stem from the particular impasses of their lives. The stymied producer with money problems in “Son of Friedman,” the idealistic young father-to-be with the vaguely menacing brother-in-law on an organic farming outfit in “Arcadia” or the fizzy, itchy sexual dread of upscale rehab in “A/S/L”: It might be tempting to dismiss these characters’ worries as issues of the first world, that set of soft-handed non-problems that accrue in the affluent margins of society. But the reader comes to feel for these people by virtue of their specific circumstances in the same way that we come to admire Cline for her encyclopedic knowledge of the shadings of wealth.