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.”
“Okay.”
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.”

BASS 2018: Emma Cline, “Los Angeles” from Granta #139

It was only November but holiday decorations were already starting to creep into the store displays: cutouts of Santa wearing sunglasses, windows poxed with fake snow, as if cold was just another joke. It hadn’t even rained since Alice moved here, the good weather holding. Back in her hometown, it was already grim and snowy, the sun behind her mother’s house setting by 5 p.m. This new city seemed like a fine alternative, the ceaseless blue sky and bare arms, the days passing frictionless and lovely. Of course, in a few years, when the reservoirs were empty and the lawns turned brown, she’d realize that there was no such thing as unending sunshine.
The employee entrance was around the back of the store, in an alley. This was before the lawsuits, when the brand was still popular and opening new stores. They sold cheap, slutty clothes in primary colors, clothes invoking a low-level athleticism – tube socks, track shorts – as if sex was an alternative sport. Alice worked at a flagship store, which meant it was bigger and busier, on a high-visibility corner near the ocean. People tracked in sand and sometimes beach tar that the cleaners had to scrub off the floors at the end of the night.

Although several interesting moments jumped out at me, I had a hard time connecting with this story overall. It seemed to be a variety of what I call a “slacker story.” Alice isn’t really a slacker; she has a job that she puts some effort into, she takes acting classes with the goal, however naïve and perhaps vague, of being an actress. I can’t get a handle on her at all, really.

Cline’s Contributor Note even spells it out: she was exploring the idea of cost, including “the cost of our experiences, what they extract from us”, and the cost, for Alice of “her inability to fully inhabit her life.” That last phrase is quite good, and I recognize that’s what I was interpreting as slacker. But I don’t understand it, so I’m somewhat outside looking in on this one. Fortunately, Jake was able to latch on to this “not inhabiting life” theme in his usual substantive way, so I recommend his post.

What did come across for me was the layering of multiple instances of sexual exploitation of women, which Alice plays into out of… naïvete? This lack of connection to her own life? The store where she works hires salesgirls by sending photos to the home office for approval, rather than by looking at resumes and experience. I gather this is a reference to Abercrombie & Fitch, though the clothing seems quite different. She’s given free store-brand clothes to wear, but in a size too small. Men hang around the store for too long, sometimes buying enough merchandise to make the commissions worthwhile.

And then there are the panty fetishists. One of them offers Oona, a sales girl Alice befriends, $50 to hand over her underwear. Turns out there’s lots more online, and there’s good money to be made sending dirty underwear to strangers. There are indeed websites set up for this sort of thing. I can’t tell you how much I didn’t want to know that.

There were countless ads online. Oona had been right, and that night Alice lost an hour clicking through them, thinking how ludicrous people were. You press slightly on the world and it showed its odd corners, revealed its dim and helpless desires. It seemed insane at first. And then, like other jokes, it became curiously possible the more she referred to it in her own mind, the uncomfortable edges softening into something innocuous.

That process of the uncomfortable becoming innocuous is normalization, and it’s where we are right now. It’s become normal to be at war (we’ve been at war for 17 years, though you might not realize it). It’s becoming normal to hear the President use Twitter to call people names. It’s normal to read increasingly frantic reports about climate change and the devastation it will bring within our lifetimes, for some of us, as well as watching once-a-century storms roll onshore every couple of years. Normalization is all about keeping us playing with our apps (or, for some, working them ragged) while the world changes around us, while we aren’t paying attention. That’s the cost. If it’s dangerous for Alice, on a larger scale it’s catastrophic for all of us.

I’m almost embarrassed to mention this, but does the name Alice have any significance, as in Alice in Wonderland, with Oona as a guide? This seems a little too pat for me, but still, Alice does have a kind of gee-whiz-how-does-everything-work-here approach that fits.

And then there’s the final scene. It’s one of those things where we’re screaming, “No, for god’s sake, don’t get in the car with the panty guy!” and of course Alice can’t hear us. It was very “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been”, but there’s built-in soothing because the narration tells us Alice will be relating all this to Oona tomorrow, so she isn’t going to be found with a slash across her throat [Addendum: Thanks to Andrew Stancek, who pointed out this isn’t narration but Alice imagining what she will tell Oona; shame on me for missing that, a crucial point. There is ambiguity -yes, the guy is reaching for the unlock button, but he also delivers the rapey-est line ever, “relax, you’re only making it worse. I greatly appreciate the insight, Andrew, and I’m more convinced than ever that this story is about sexual exploitation, and how we become used to it; that leads us into danger.]. But, keeping in mind what Cline said about cost: if she survives this, what will she do next, and will she survive that?

BASS 2017: Emma Cline, “Arcadia” from Granta #136

Granta art by Emli Bendixen / Millennium Images

Granta art by Emli Bendixen / Millennium Images

“There’s room for expansion,” Otto said over breakfast, reading the thin-paged free newspaper the organic people sent out to all the farms. He tapped an article with his thick finger, and Peter noticed that Otto’s nail was colored black with nail polish, or a marker. Or maybe it was only a blood blister.
“We draw a leaf or some shit on our label,” Otto said, squinting at the page. “Even if it just kind of looks like this. People wouldn’t know the difference.”

Complete story available online at Granta

That line about the black nail, coming in the first paragraph like that, stood out to me. I kept thinking about it; these aren’t city kids in a Brooklyn loft hoping to be discovered. Why would a farm guy would think another farm guy would be using black nail polish? It couldn’t be a throwaway line, not featured so prominently; no editor would stand for that. As I was reading the story, I kept making notations about public and private; it seemed like the crux of the story. But I think that’s a subordinate theme. The whole story is in that opening discussion: what’s real, what’s fake, what’s natural, what’s artificial about these people, and who’s kidding whom about the relationships among them?

It took me a while to figure out who was who. Otto and Heddy are siblings who are functionally parent and child. Heddy and Peter are… to call them lovers or engaged feels too romanticized, too deliberate; they’re basically kids who found themselves pregnant, so Peter moved in and they’ll get married at some point. “Peter had moved into Heddy’s childhood bedroom, still cluttered with her porcelain dolls and crumbling prom corsages, and tried to ignore the fact of Otto’s room just down the hall” kind of sums it up, and creeps me out.

Peter feels the most familiar to me. He’s bewildered and a bit unsure of himself and his role in the family and on the farm, but he seems to have a straightforward, honest outlook. Except that he kind of read Heddy’d diary and stole her idea about setting up a website for the farm, a transgression that seems to bother him more than it bothers Heddy, if she’s even aware of it.

At the start of the story, Heddy, all of eighteen going on twelve, is starting junior college, armed with an array of notebooks and variously colored pens and ready to figure out how to cover her textbooks with paper bags, studying French and salsa dancing, going swimming in the afternoons for “low-impact exercise”. Turns out, she’s a lot better at getting ready to go to school than she is at school.

Which plays into the path of the story: I know nothing about life on a small Northern California farm, but I do know that change is hard, especially when you’re in a family that’s determined to maintain the status quo. As with the diary reading, whether Heddy’s aware or not is ambiguous; it’s Peter who realizes his vision of moving into their own place with “curtains for the nursery that she’d want to sew herself” is a fantasy, that they’re going to be living down the hall from Otto for the forseeable future.

And oh, by the way, Arcadia is the mythic Greek land of natural perfection – and the home of the libidinous woodland god Pan.

Then I come back to the black fingernail. Peter, the point-of-view character and observer/processor, doesn’t attach value to the options, whether it’s artifice, accident, or the remnants of a wound. He just notices, and presents the picture of Otto and Heddy for us to sort out.