Sunday, November 15, 2020

Introspective disorder: "The Nanny" by Emma Cline

Hillary Kelly from the Los Angeles Times, in a recent interview with Emma Cline about Cline's book of short stories "Daddy," observed that many of Cline's stories present "young women too often subject to — and sometimes complicit in — acts to which they don’t fully consent, or romance narratives they don’t create." That not only pretty aptly sums up "The Nanny," appearing in the 2020 Best American Short Stories, but also "Los Angeles," one of my favorite stories from the 2018 BASS

Both Alice from "Los Angeles" and Kayla from "The Nanny" make terrible decisions surrounding sex. Neither is very good at diagnosing their own dysfunctions that lead to those decisions, but the texts of the two stories allow for a pretty reliable literary examination that allows the reader to break down how Alice and Kayla are ruining themselves. For Alice, it was a willingness to readily buy into the philosophy of "it's important to make mistakes when you're young." 

Kayla, though, is a tougher nut to crack. She resists attempts from well-meaning acquaintances to help her self-analyze. Throughout the entire story, she has access to a credentialed counselor who is willing to help, but Kayla digs her heels in about accepting that help. 

We can see that Kayla really needs the help, though. She's just run in shame from the paparazzi to the house of a friend of her mom's after the press found out she was having an affair with the famous actor whose child she'd been hired to be the nanny for. The texts between Kayla and Rafe, the big dumb actor, were linked to the child's tablet, which allowed Jessica, the mother who had never showed Kayla anything but kindness, to find out. 

Cline's Nanny is, um, a little less bubbly and self-confident than this one. 

Kayla has gone from being completely unknown in the world to known widely, and only for one bad thing. Her refusal to accept help is understandable to some extent as a desire to not be pitied, but there's something deeper at play here, something fundamental that not only is keeping her from lessening the impact of the consequences of her bad decisions, but helped lead to those bad decisions in the first place.

Although Kayla is assuredly "a smart girl," she has a huge blind spot where her own value is concerned. She is able to be extremely attuned to others, to know the "level of precise, almost psychotic attunement to another person." It's why she's a good nanny. Or was a good nanny. 

She can see others clearly, but when it comes to seeing herself, she either refuses to look at all or is only able to see herself hyper-critically. Looking at herself in tabloid photos with Rafe, she sees that "she looked only okay," and that the jeans she was wearing were not "as flattering as she'd imagined." Kayla assumes she can guess what Mary, the friend of the mother she's staying with, is thinking about her: "A waste, she probably believed...Probably, Mary thought, this was just the result of an absent father, an overworked mother." Not only does Kayla assume others are judging her harshly, she accepts this imagined judgement as correct: "This felt correct, the correct scale of things." Kayla's run-in with shame has fulfilled her own self-prophecy, because "she had always expected something like this to happen to her."

What is it about Kayla that makes her see herself in such negative terms, terms she's bound and determined to make sure she lives down to?

Princess and nurse

As Kayla hides out, she stays in the room of Mary's teenage son, who is away. She looks through his things, which include a yearbook. Only girls have written in it. One teacher took up a whole page in the back with encouraging words, words Kayla finds moving. She is unable to accept encouragement directed at her, but finds it appropriate when given to others. Only girls have written in the yearbook because only girls are able to write something encouraging, only girls are raised to know the "level of precise, almost psychotic attunement to another person." 

Girls, in other words, are raised to be keenly aware of the feelings and wellbeing of others, especially boys, but not to themselves. Their social development prevents many girls, when they become women, from being able to perform introspection, or worse, only able to handle introspection that is unrealistically self-critical. 

This is born out when Kayla goes to a party and decides to abscond to the room of the younger daughter of the hosts. The girl has made an elaborate house for her dolls. When Kayla seems tired, the girl attends to Kayla's needs, giving her pretend medicine. "I'm actually a princess, but I was forced to be a nurse," the girl informs her. One imagines Kayla is living a similar life. One imagines many women are.

The only time Kayla is able to accept any kind of compliment is when she is in a fever dream talking to Bugs Bunny. Bugs, in the dream, is something like a therapist, reflecting her questions back to her without judgment. He calls her "beautiful" in the dream, and for once, she doesn't correct him. Kayla's secret desire sneaking out in the dream isn't just to be seen as beautiful, it's to be able to hold a discourse with her own psyche that's as rational as the thinking she applies to the needs of others. She has an introspective disorder, one that keeps her from looking inside with the same care and attentiveness she applies to others. 

At the end of the story, Kayla is not cured of her affliction. The medicine given her by the young girl has not worked. Dennis, Mary's husband, is still trying to feed her encouragement, but she's not accepting it. Dennis tells her she's "a good person" and "more than just this one thing," but she is just as sure as ever that she is a "vain, silly girl" who "wasn't good at anything." 

She assures Dennis that she's "not ashamed," but she's done nothing through the entire story but act ashamed. Ultimately, there is no cure for Kayla by the end of the story. She's still looking outside herself for someone else to find her rather than working to find herself. If there is redemption Cline provides, it's only for readers who might suffer from a similar affliction to Kayla's. 

Oh, by the way, Cline is a genius

I didn't mean to learn anything about Emma Cline or her life. I usually try to avoid learning about the lives of authors. However, I accidentally learned about her when researching for this post. She's been hailed as a prodigy, someone who demonstrated an incredibly mature voice and powerful gift for language at a young age. 

On Goodreads, some people criticized her first novel "The Girls" for being over-written. I have to imagine those are people who don't usually read literary fiction. Cline's first novel got a lot of hype, meaning it probably got readers who normally stick to general commercial fiction, people who would find any attempt to write gleaming-white prose as "over-written." 

I don't usually focus much on whether the works I look at are excellent on a frame-by-frame basis; I don't generally analyze the technical quality of the writing. But with Cline, it's very hard to not realize I'm dealing with a genius among geniuses. My chief problem reading literary fiction is that sometimes, I just think the level of detail is boring. I realize it's necessary to setting tone, atmosphere, and even the very themes I do like to look at in my analysis, but my nature is such that sometimes, I really just want to find out what happens. I never feel that way with Cline. 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. She does this with nothing but her own virtuosity. Like a film maker whose every frame is rich with compositions that throw a viewer off enough to make the viewer instinctively look closer, Cline engages at the sentence level in a way few can. She's utterly deserving of her status as a rock star. 

For Karen Carlson's take, which includes a good observation about the scene with where Kayla gets in Rafe's eyeline, go here


  1. I was impressed enough with "The Nanny" to want to read The Girls. I think our take on the story is closer with this one.

    1. Cline's been in BASS three times in the last six years, and I really think she lives up to her own hype, which is saying a lot.

  2. I regret to inform you that I just don’t get it. I see a lot of interesting bits and pieces – the “get out of my eye line” and subsequent description, the final scene with Dennis – but overall it seems like a character study rather than a story. I’ll have to file this under “I recognize it’s well done but it’s not my taste”.

  3. Ha! Karen just beat me to my reluctant conclusion. I have loved Cline before. I have both her books on my TBR shelf. And yet, with this story,I left disappointed. I think I just don't find the protagonist or the situation all that interesting, don't feel we have been all that enlightened. As Karen said, just not to my taste. And considering my admiration of the author, that is disappointing.


Feel free to leave a comment. I like to know people are reading and thinking.