BASS 2020: Emma Cline, “The Nanny” from The Paris Review #231

A few years ago there was a stretch of tabloid stories about celebrity affairs, often involving nannies. I was struck by a paparazzi photo of one of the young women; she looked so confident, almost smirking, but then seemed, at the same time, obviously afraid, obviously in over her head. I wanted to explore that mindset – the bravado of youth covering up terror, the desire to try to take ownership of bad things as a way to make them less painful. Kayla is desperate to avoid being seen as a victim, to forestall pity or self reflection by any means necessary, even if this means rebuffing actual kindness and connection.

Emma Cline, Contributor Note

Having been a young person who made some mistakes, but had the luck to make them before the internet age, I can sympathize with Kayla’s confusing reaction to her situation. I can also get a little exasperated with the public fascination with scandal, with the need to see things as a morality play, to force our beliefs onto a situation about which we know very little.

Keeping in that vein, as the story opens, we have little information. Kayla is staying with Mary and Dennis, a couple other than her parents. When she asks for a beer to go with the pizza, she notices they glance at each other, but they find some and give it to her. When she goes for a walk, she worries they’re watching her and will object to her checking her phone. “What would they do, take her phone away?” From this, I got the impression that Kayla was very young, and maybe had a substance abuse problem or had been acting out in some way. I was surprised to find out 1) she’s 24 years old, and 2) she’s a college graduate, possibly with a Master’s degree.

Eventually we find out Kayla was a nanny for an actor’s family, and slept with him some number of times. It’s unclear if the affair began as consensual, but it became so, to the point where now, hiding out from paparazzi with Mary, her mother’s college roommate, she searches in vain for messages from the man.

Then comes the line that put me squarely into judgmental mode:

It was easy to imagine what Mary thought of Kayla. A waste, she probably believed, Kayla just twenty-four years old and now this. Probably, Mary thought, this was just the result of an absent father, an overworked mother.
But how could Kayla explain? This felt correct, the correct scale of things. Kayla had always expected something like this to happen to her.

There’s the paradox of her actively insisting on seeing herself in the passive role, of this happening to her, rather than her actions having consequences; exaggerated consequences, certainly, but her behavior played a role. And yet, I have some idea of what it’s like to be young and not fully grasp how the world works, to be  able to convince yourself that what you did wasn’t that bad, there were extenuating circumstances. There usually are extenuating circumstances to everything, but it’s dangerous to take them as license. Unfortunately, it takes time – and, sometimes, bitter experience – to learn that.

The scenes from the affair make her seem pathetic rather than predatory. Returning from the bathroom after a tryst, she finds him watching TV, “as if nothing had happened at all.” He ignores her in public, which she excuses because there are film people around who might start talking. At a filming session on an oversees shoot, he demands she get out of his eye line:

“I’m not in your eye line,” she said. She could feel the makeup girl glancing at them.
“You don’t think you are, but it’s my eye line, that’s the point,” Rafe said. “It’s what I see. Not what you see. What I see. And I’m seeing you.”
He widened his eyes, about to say something, then seemed to soften. “Why don’t you go swim in the pool at the hotel? Get some lunch?”
“Yes,” she said. Her voice was faint. “That’s a good idea.”
She knew Rafe didn’t want her to make a scene. And she wouldn’t. She smiled out to the nothingness, the empty horizon. The land was scrubby and not beautiful, not at all how she had imagined. In truth, it had been her first time outside the country.

The scenic description after that interaction about whose eyeline matters is perfect. I’m sure love does look bare and drab to her, not at all how she had imagined it would look. Her inexperience is a distinct disadvantage.

Why does a woman put up with this? Because he’s handsome and famous? Because she needs the job? Sure, that probably plays into it, but there’s something else, a self-image problem we glimpse now that she’s down and out and letting more supressed feelings into her conscious mind. Kayla wasn’t always a nanny banging a famous daddy, which, leaving aside any sexual morality you want to fold over it, is horrible because it’s so cliché. And it’s so dumb. But she used to be something else.

The thing was, she was a smart girl. She’d studied art history. Her first class, when Professor Hunnison turned out the lights and they all sat in the dark—they were eighteen, most of them, still children, still kids who had slept at home all their lives. Then the whir of the projector, and on the screen appeared hovering portals of light and color, squares of beauty. It was like a kind of magic, she had thought back then, when thoughts like that didn’t feel embarrassing.
How mysterious it seemed sometimes—that she had once been interested or capable enough to finish papers. Giotto and his reimaginings of De Voragine’s text in his frescoes. Rodin’s challenge to classical notions of fixed iconographic goals, Michelangelo’s bodies as vessels for God’s will. It was as if she’d once been fluent in another language, now forgotten.

Flash forward to her senior thesis, where she’s increasing the margins to meet the minimum page requirement. I had to smile at that. I used to adjust my margins, too, but the other way – I made them as small as possible so I could get more words into my 5 or 10 or 25 pages. But Kayla’s metamorphosis is the point: What happened in between? How did awe turn into cynicism, inquisitiveness into reaching for the easiest fix and closest available comfort? We don’t get to know that. We only know it happened. When she starts wondering if her art history professor remembers her, it’s a genuinely moving glance back to a happier time.

The story ends with her dragged to a party by her hosts. She ends up hiding out in one of the children’s rooms, naturally enough; she was a nanny, after all, so she must have a high comfort level with kids, but also she’s not really up to adult interaction. She climbs into the little girl’s bed – kind of strange, but ok – and the child takes charge, reversing the roles: “I’m actually a princess, but I was forced to be a nurse.” Yep. Kayla knows all about that. Whereas she was unable to receive caretaking from Maya and Dennis, she is able to accept it from a child, possibly because she doesn’t worry about the judgment and advice that’s sure to be contingent on the comfort.

The final scene is loaded with subtlety and ambiguity, to the point where, if it were a script, it could be read a dozen different ways and feel authentic in each.  But I struggle with great writer’s choices that seem questionable in the fictional world. For example, Dennis comes looking for her to take her home. Why is it he who comes, not Mary? The reason Cline chose to make it him becomes obvious from the interaction that follows, but what is the fictional reason, is Mary looking for her somewhere else, or did she just casually say, “Hey, go look for Kayla, the girl who sleeps with inappropriate men”?

“Come on, Kayla,” Dennis said, pulling the covers back. Kayla’s dress had ridden up and her underwear was showing.
“Jesus,” he said, and tossed the blankets back over her. His face was red.
“I’m sorry,” Kayla said, getting up, searching out her sandals.
“Are you?”
The tone of his voice surprised her—when she glanced at him, he looked intently at the floor.
Kayla felt the room around her, her cheap sandal in her hand. “I’m not ashamed, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
Dennis started laughing, but it just seemed weary. “Jesus,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “You’re a nice girl,” he said. “I know you’re a good person.
The anger she felt then, close to hatred—“Maybe I’m not.”
Dennis’s eyes were watery, pained. “Of course you are. You’re more than just this one thing.”
Dennis scanned Kayla’s face, her eyes, her mouth, and she could tell he was seeing what he wanted to see, finding confirmation of whatever redemptive story he’d told himself about who she was.

Another great writer’s choice that seems odd in the fictional context: pulling back the covers. As a symbol of Kayla being laid bare to the world, it’s perfect, but would a man who is pretty much a stranger do that? Is that the point, that men do that? That he shows embarrassment is a plus; he’s an adult, in other words, acting like an adult, respecting boundaries. Look closely, Kayla, you might never see that again. But the conversation is, yes, that golden word, ambiguous. Is she being seductive? Is he thinking about it?

I’d like to hope maybe Kayla is learning to recognize respect between adults, and that she can accept kindness without paying dearly for it. But that’s my hope; Kayla doesn’t need anyone else projecting their mindset onto her.

* * *

Other takes on this story can be found at:

Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic: “Every digression, every observation not strictly necessary, is so enjoyable, so considerate of the reader’s need to be stimulated, is pulled off with such skill, I do not feel myself constantly looking to see how much longer the story is.”

Jim Harris at Auxiliary Memory: “Everything that unfolds in “The Nanny” is a mystery because Cline doesn’t tell us upfront what’s going on.”

6 responses to “BASS 2020: Emma Cline, “The Nanny” from The Paris Review #231

  1. Nice observation on the scene with the “eyelines.” I’m gathering between the lines here that you were maybe less fond of this story than I was, which was also true of Cline’s “Los Angeles” back two years ago. A year before that, you and I were about equally ambivalent, I think, about “Arcadia.”

    • Boy, did this post need editing. Part of it’s the new WordPress posting system (which isn’t new at all, I’ve just resisted using it until they disabled the old one) but a lot of it is that I finished the post last night & should have let it sit a day, but I’m TRYING TO CATCH UP WITH YOU GUYS!
      Yeah, I see you’ve come to recognize my “I didn’t particularly like this story but I appreciate what the writer did” voice. On a close-read level, I see some marvelous touches.
      You and Andrew brought me around to being overall positive about “Los Angeles”; I’d listed “Arcadia” as one of the better stories from it’s BASS edition. But, yeah, the overall gushing of the literary community is something of a mystery to me. Like Sittenfeld said in her Intro, sometimes a writer just doesn’t fit our particular taste. I doubt Cline will find that a serious setback.

  2. Hey, you and I see eye to eye on this one. Cline is now one of my favorite short story writers. I was enormously looking forward to this story. And I leave disappointed. I just wanted more. More interesting protagonist or situation, just something, anything more. And ultimately we just have to accept this is all there is. Move on. Nothing to see here. But I think I am moving up her novel to the top of my reading list.

  3. I didn’t get a sense she was being seductive at all. I’d say it’s a question of her wanting to be A Special Person. And the world is sexist hence her options are limited. Faced with a choice to be seen or not to be seen at all, she chooses to be seen. But how she’s seen is out of her hands.

    It’s a brilliant story.

    • I very much like your use of “seen”. Yet she hides from the photographers – she also wants a choice of who sees her, and who doesn’t. It’s a real consideration in these days of putting our lives on Facebook and Instagram: does that have to be read as automatic consent to any invasion of privacy?
      You’re in good company, Cline is highly regarded.

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