by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, November 15, 2020
“The Nanny” by Emma Cline is available to read online at The Paris Review.
Have you ever dreamed of writing fiction? I have. I’ve even studied it in college. Writing stories is much harder than it looks. I don’t know if I fail because I’m a bad writer or because I don’t understand how stories are told or constructed. I’m reading and reviewing The Best American Short Stories 2020 (BASS 2020) this year to see if I can spot what good writers do that I don’t.
Even though I’m about to nitpick another story, I must reiterate that all these stories are well written and entertaining. However, I’m not sure what kind of reader will like them. Few bookworms read short stories, and I think that most that do are would-be writers. Getting short stories published is like making it onto farm team in baseball – but the real goal is to get into the show.
Emma Cline has already made it to the big time with The Girls in 2016, so I expect her short story production to fall off as she writes more novels. This makes “The Nanny” an important story to study because we know Cline has the knack for attracting readers. And as soon as I started reading “The Nanny” I noticed that her story is full of significant details. And “The accumulation of significant details is the key to great fiction” is the most important piece of advice I got at Clarion West in 2002, a six-weeks writing workshop.
However, writing techniques are not the only thing I’m studying with this BASS 2020 project. I’m also analyzing what do people like to read and why. And even more than that, why do people read short stories. There’s several answers to that. First and foremost, we naturally like the art form, but more specifically, we get hooked by the opening:
There isn’t much in the house,” Mary said. “I’m sorry.” Kayla looked around, shrugged. “I’m not even that hungry.” Mary set the table, bright Fiestaware on place mats alongside fringed cloth napkins. They ate microwave pizzas. “Gotta have something a little fresh,” Mary’s boyfriend, Dennis, said cheerily, heaping spinach leaves from a plastic bin onto his pizza. He seemed pleased by his ingenuity. Kayla ate the spinach, took a few bites of crust. Mary poured her more water. When Kayla asked for a beer, she saw Mary and Dennis glance at each other. “Sure, sweetie,” Mary said. “Dennis, do we have any beer? Maybe check the garage refrigerator?”
I didn’t find this opening very enticing. Kayla appears to be our protagonist, and she’s being fed on the fly, maybe even an inconvenient or unwanted guest. I can vividly picture this scene though.
Cline gets down to business in the next hunk of description:
Kayla drank two over dinner, then a third out on the porch, her legs tucked up into the oversize hoodie she had taken from Mary’s son’s room. The wildness of the backyard made everything beyond it look fake: the city skyline, the stars. Reception was awful this high in the canyon. She could try to walk closer to the road again, out by the neighbor’s fence, but Mary would notice and say something. Kayla could feel Dennis and Mary watching her from inside the kitchen, tracking the glow of her screen. What would they do, take her phone away? She searched Rafe’s name, searched her own. The numbers had grown. Such nightmarish math, the frenzied tripling of results, and how strange to see her name like this, stuffing page after page, appearing in the midst of even foreign languages, hovering above photos of Rafe’s familiar face.
We really don’t know what’s happening. Evidently Kayla is hiding out because she’s become notorious on the internet with a famous person named Rafe. I do know what’s happening because I’ve already read the story, but at this point for first time readers, the motives of this paragraph are a mystery. And that bugs me. I don’t like stories that withhold information from the reader to create suspense. Of course, that’s a pet peeve of mine, and it might not be yours.
Everything that unfolds in “The Nanny” is a mystery because Cline doesn’t tell us upfront what’s going on. Now this might be a great technique for hooking some readers. Since I don’t think I should spoil the story for you, I can’t tell you why Cline is doing this.
But how can I talk about the story then? Can I trust you to go read the story and then come back? It is online. Should I just warn you to not read beyond this point until you’ve finished reading BASS 2020? I don’t think many people who are reading this blog plan to read these stories. In that case, any benefit you get from reading what I say comes from my observations, so I matter as well spill the beans.
Kayla is hired by Rafe and Jessica to nanny their son Henry. Rafe is a movie actor, and Kayla ends up having sex with him. Then Kayla is on the run from paparazzi and bad press. At first I wondered if this was going to be a #MeToo story, but it’s not. It’s really about Kayla attitude towards the world. Cline captures a young woman who flows along with an almost nihilistic outlook. At one point we are told:
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.
Evidently, Kayla once had academic ambitions, even hopes of having something to distinguish herself, or at least impressing her professor. Through the course of the story we learn she wasn’t smart enough. Her affair with Rafe might have been another hope for Kayla, but it was only out of boredom for Rafe. She thought the relationship made her special, but when everyone turned against her she had to run. She just goes through the motions as Mary and Dennis take care of her out of pity. In the end we are told the sad reality of Kayla’s dreams:
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. Dennis looked sad. He looked tired and sad and old. And the thing was, someday, she would be old, too. Her body would go. Her face. And what then? She knew, already, that she wouldn’t handle it well. She was a vain, silly girl. She wasn’t good at anything. The things she had once known—Rodin! Chartres!—all that was gone. Was there a world in which she returned to these things? She hadn’t been smart enough, really. Even then. Lazy, grasping for shortcuts. Her thesis moldering in her college library, a hundred labored pages on The Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple. She’d messed with the margins and font sizes until she barely made the required page count. Professor Hunnison, she thought miserably, do you ever think of me?
Kayla lives in a society that admires people who create successful identities and she struggles to find anything at all to set herself apart. The story concludes in a way that turns even us against her:
At least he had given up on the idea of lecturing her. Convincing her there was some lesson in all this. That wasn’t how the world worked, and wasn’t it a little tragic that Dennis didn’t know that yet? No use feeling bad. There wasn’t anything to learn. Kayla smiled, sucked in her stomach, just in case—because who knew? Maybe there was a photographer hidden out there in the darkness, someone who’d been watching her, who’d followed her here, someone who had waited, patiently, for her to appear.
Would the story had been just as successful is Cline had told us right up front that Kayla was on the run for having sex with a married actor and the popular opinion was against her? What if we were told Kayla was a graduate school dropout at the beginning of the story and she was searching for any kind of recognition she could latch onto?
Was it fair of Cline to hide Kayla’s faults from us? Mary and Dennis hope to help Kayla, and see her as a good person – at first. We assume Rafe and Jessica did too. And haven’t we held out hope for Kayla too, also assuming she was a good person. Then how do we feel at the end when we learn she’s pathetically wants a paparazzi to find her?
Is it good storytelling to hold off a surprise until the end? Personally, I would have preferred to know the ending right up front, and then got to watch Kayla closely throughout the story to understand all the interactions of the characters. If we had known the ending at the beginning, then these paragraphs at the front of the story would have taken on different meanings.
Before Tuesday there had been hardly any record of Kayla: an old fund-raising page from Students for a Free Tibet; a blog run by a second cousin with photos from a long-ago family reunion, teenage Kayla, mouth full of braces, holding a paper plate bent with barbecue. Her mother had called the cousin and asked her to take the photo down, but by then it had passed into the amber of the internet. Were there any new ones? She looked through the image results again, in case. They had dug up photos of Kayla lagging behind Rafe and Jessica, holding Henry’s hand. Rafe in his button-down and jeans, surrounded by women and children. Kayla had no photos of her and Rafe together. That was strange, wasn’t it? She came across a new photo—she looked only okay. A certain pair of jeans she loved was not, she saw, as flattering as she’d imagined it to be. She saved the photo to her phone so she could zoom in on it later. Kayla made herself close the search results, then let her text messages refresh. A split-second reprieve where she could believe that perhaps the forces in the universe were aligning and aiming something from Rafe in her direction. She knew before they finished loading that there would be nothing.
Knowing the ending would change my attitude about the information given here. I wonder if Cline always saw Kayla’s faults and wrote the story thinking about them, and didn’t realize some readers might follow different assumptions before learning the truth?
It’s not that we eventually turn against Kayla completely, but it would have been more useful knowing her weaknesses sooner. I assume Cline wanted us to get to know Kayla slowly like everyone in the story. But then, we wouldn’t know the breadcrumbs Cline sprinkled throughout the story meant unless we read the story twice.
Of course, that brings up a whole other issue. So many of the stories I admire require two or three readings before all the author’s efforts are revealed. Should we always read short stories twice immediately? Should we write them assuming people will read them twice? That rarely happens.
Is it possible to keep the reader completely informed with one reading?
The point of “The Nanny” is to create a psychological portrait of Kayla, but is that what readers want from short stories? There is no plot. There is no ending. Nothing is wrapped up. I accept that in literary stories, but do most readers?