“Northeast Regional”
by Emma Cline
from the April 10, 2017 issue of The New Yorker

Emma Cline’s debut novel, The Girls, inspired in part by the Manson murders, was published last year to great hype, hype which began when Random House bought the book a few years earlier for $2 million as part of a three book deal. Most of the reviews I read of the book make it sound like Random House knew what they were doing, and that Cline’s work is worth following.

Having not read The Girls myself, though, I can only say here that I’m glad we can get to know a bit of Cline’s work in The New Yorker. Cline’s interview with Willing Davidson (here) does not suggest “Northeast Regional” is an except, so I think we’re getting a genuine short story from a young voice.

I’m anxious to hear your thoughts on the story or Cline’s work in general below!

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By | 2017-05-24T21:18:18+00:00 April 3rd, 2017|Categories: Emma Cline, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |21 Comments

21 Comments

  1. David April 3, 2017 at 2:36 pm

    Well, I’m not sure that there is anything particularly wrong with this story or bad about the writing, but I just didn’t find Richard to be that interesting a person. I thought the interview was helpful in both confirming and expanding on the impression I got of him, but I was still left with a feeling of “So what?” Cline has published other short fiction in Granta and The Paris Review (that I have not read – this was the first of her writing I have read), having won the Plimpton Prize from the latter for her work. I am curious to check out one of those stories to see if my reservations here really are just the subject she chose.
    .
    I do have two rather nitpicky points to raise about the details of this story. Firstly, the school is in a small town, it’s the only private school and there is only one hotel in town, yet the taxi driver needs the address in order to use a GPS to find the best route to drive there. That does not seem credible at all and the moment just an excuse to try to create another awkward interaction for Richard. Secondly, We are told that they mysterious event that is getting Rowan removed from school and could be a problem were his future college notified about it and that put a boy in the hospital, yet it is not the sort of thing that they need to worry about being a legal matter. I cannot imagine any situation that would fit that description. While I agree with Cline that we don’t need to know the details of the event for the purposes of the story, it should be at least possible to imaging some scenario that fits the details given.
    .
    Maybe I was dwelling too much on these to details because I did not find Richard (or any of the other characters for that matter) to be of much interest. Count me as disappointed in the story, but undecided about the author. I am reminded of David Gilbert’s “Underground” from February. Just as I found Richard uninteresting in this story, so too did that one suffer from having a main character I did not care much about. But in Gilbert’s case the writing was clearly not as good as it is here. I need to see more of Cline’s work before offering a more critical judgement of it.

  2. Sean H April 5, 2017 at 3:56 am

    After her Charles Manson novel The Girls was widely pilloried in reviews, I was hesitant to even give this the time to read it. At first, I was mildly surprised, even impressed. This writer wasn’t a talentless hack, I thought, in the early pages. The details of Richard and Ana’s affair were downright well-wrought. Richard’s sixth sense for which women to approach, their desire for mimetic adventure emblemized by lingerie “haunted by the prick of the plastic tag they’d tried to snap off so that he wouldn’t realize it was new,” solipsistic and self-lacerating women moved by their own sorrow and a need to unburden themselves of their skeletons and degradations, the way Anna repeatedly mentions her husband’s name in front of Richard. I was really drawn in and wish she would have stayed with Richard and Ana.
    The mid-section of the story underwhelmed but I was willing to stick with the protagonist as he went to meet with his son’s school about the heretofore unrevealed transgression of his son Rowan. Was it going to be violence, weirdness, a treatise on “bullying,” perhaps an allusion to Brock Turner? I was just hoping it wasn’t going to suck, and deflate what had previously been built rather well. But suck and deflate it did. The needless POV shift to Paul Frisch, the boarding school’s headmaster, is when it really starts to go off the rails. And the refusal to detail exactly what Rowan did that got him kicked out of school is downright unforgivable. It’s playing coy with your reader and that just won’t fly. It’s a sophomoric choice and beneath the New Yorker’s standards. The denouement shows a real ignorance and lack of basic literary reading.
    Bret Easton Ellis, Dominick Dunne, and Jonathan Franzen have dredged the depths of upper class entitlement and the crimes they commit. The world of homosocial boarding school male ugliness is better captured by John Irving. The haughty son untethered from the WASP family has been done long ago by Salinger, and far more recently by Tartt, David Gilbert, and Garth Risk Hallberg. They all do it better than Cline does here. Even the father who hates his son tale featuring a conflicted dad on a train is old hat (see Raymond Carver’s “The Compartment”).
    Then I read her interview (unfortunately) and was confirmed in my opinion that this is an absolute nincompoop. Men don’t sleep with married women because of a “self-narrative” or because they “can’t close the distance between” the story they want to project and reality. Richard isn’t projecting himself to anyone. No one knows about his affair! He screws married women because he can and because he has a libido. Cline’s rationalization for not revealing what gets Richard’s son kicked out of school is circumlocution of the shallowest sort. It’s absolutely crucial to reveal why he gets kicked out of school (and to know whether he actually committed some sort of crime or immoral act, or whether he is a victim or political correctness or a false accusation). It’s not a “horror-movie trope” and the context of her interview reveals that she doesn’t even know what “trope” means, it’s just something she heard a teacher or professor say once and is regurgitating it in hopes of sounding smart. Listening to a “writer” defend their intentional lack of specificity is just a sad display. Just think about that phrase – INTENTIONAL lack of specificity. Specificity, aka: the life blood of sustaining literary fiction.
    I gave her a chance but Cline proved herself, despite an intriguing first 15-20 paragraphs, to be truly a no-talent hack who has somehow stumbled into best-seller land. Not the first or the last. Rather pitiable actually. It’s hard to believe that there are other millennial “artists” as useless as Lena Dunham, but Cline is making a strong bid here.

  3. Lee Monks April 5, 2017 at 6:19 am

    Well, I liked The Girls some, and Cline can write seriously stylish, readable stuff. But I have to agree with Sean H about the unfortunate switch to Paul Frisch here; it’s just a terrible decision, and withholding the transgression in such a way felt, and was, tricksy.

    But loads of talent, no doubt.

  4. Dennis Lang April 5, 2017 at 10:10 am

    Love it! Sean H, you are consistently amazing! Really! I see you in the front row of every class I ever had raising your hand all the time. At least you gave Ms, Cline “a chance”, even though she revealed herself to be “a no-talent hack”
    (Are the anger-management meds being sufficiently monitored?)
    Seriously, all in fun. Keep it up.

  5. David April 5, 2017 at 12:20 pm

    Lee, I have not read The Girls, but I did google reviews after reading this story and they were all either positive or mixed with some degree of praise, so I don’t know how Sean gets the idea that the book was “pilloried”. On the issue of not telling us exactly what Rowan did, I wonder if you think this was a problem specific to this story or a more general one. I was already a bit bored by the time we got to the school, so I’m not sure the fact it didn’t bother me (other than the seeming impossibility of the details I noted before) says much other than I was a bit bored.
    .
    I can imagine in a better version of the story it not mattering what the details were. All we really need to know is that it is bad enough to remove him from school, threaten his college acceptance, yet be something he shrugs off as no big deal and something his father is able to use his privilege to minimize without seeming to really care about as he should. I agree with Cline in the interview that getting into the details of what happened could distract from the issue of the boy and his father’s reaction to the situation, which is what she seems more interested in here. I’d be interested in what you think about that, Lee.
    .
    I also think you might be right that she has talent worth checking out further. I think I will look into the stories she has published elsewhere.

  6. Dennis Lang April 5, 2017 at 12:29 pm

    David–I just did the same thing. As usual, hanging on every word of Sean H had to see the “pillorying” of Cline’s debut “Girls” for myself. I’m sure there are examples.

    http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/06/06/the-girls-by-emma-cline

    Doesn’t seem James Woods shared that view. But is Woods a quack pretending to be a lit critic?

  7. Trevor Berrett April 5, 2017 at 12:41 pm

    But is Woods a quack pretending to be a lit critic?

    Now that’d be a hot take!

  8. Lee Monks April 5, 2017 at 1:18 pm

    I never even got round to saying I found much to admire in the story, up to a point.

    David: I felt that an interesting setup re: the unrevealed transgression might have been something that could have opened up interesting stuff about how Rowan and Richard were similar/dissimilar, some act that forced Richard to ask questions about himself via Rowan, perhaps a violent act or a misogynistic act, that I think might’ve opened up intriguing avenues. This is all easy to gesture at, I know…in general I thought it was well done, but ultimately fell apart.

    I recall a review of The Girls that refers to “look at me” sentences; alas, I think this is Cline’s strength! And she can build narratives through such lapidary ruminations. I think here’s someone who can do an awful lot with characters set amid basic plot structures; she has unmistakeable insight and deftness of encapsulation. Here it doesn’t really work, in the end. But 2/3s of something interesting.

  9. Sean H April 5, 2017 at 7:16 pm

    Just in quick response to a couple of points. I do think coyness is a problem in general for fiction. Elision is fine, omission is fine, but certain details are more important than others; in fact, certain details are absolutely necessary. If you want the master class on how this works, just look at the great minimalist authors. Hemingway, Carver, Borges, more recently the likes of Lydia Davis and Amy Hempel. Specificity is an essential ingredient. You don’t need baroque maximalism or rococo flourishes to draw attention to yourself. And over-description is certainly problematic.
    But in Cline’s story in particular, it is absolutely necessary to know whether Rowan was kicked out of school for calling someone a racist slur or for beating someone’s head in with a fire extinguisher, whether he called an RA a gay or gender-based name or whether he defecated in someone’s book bag or whether he was accused of participating in a gang rape or if it was Tyler Clementi type situation or a Brock Turner type situation or simply just a fistfight. Was his transgression something that wouldn’t have been in a big deal in his father’s day? Was it something ideological like in Philip Roth’s Indignation? Was it something like the way the headmaster had his face pushed into his own vomit when he was a student? Or was it something to do with a smartphone or social media or the internet? Why does his girlfriend stand by him (or maybe even like Rowan more because of his bad boy rule-breakerism)? Is his act one his father disdains? Thinks is harmless? Judges harshly? Forgives?
    Another great example of how you can “leave stuff out” and yet never lose a single essential detail (and actually be even more impactful in the highlighting of a rare and well-rendered description/detail) is Cormac McCarthy. As his fiction transitioned from the Faulknerian density of Blood Meridian and Suttree to the pared down small novels like No Country for Old Men and The Road, he never forgot which details to elide and which to amp up.
    Lastly, I certainly don’t think James Wood is a hack or a quack but the ultimate “hot take” on him has already been issued, by Jonathan Lethem in “My Disappointment Critic,” available in his essay collection The Ecstasy of Influence (or here: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/my-disappointment-critic/). Highly worth reading, if only to countenance and counter-balance Wood’s highfalutin reputation.

  10. Roger April 5, 2017 at 9:27 pm

    Like David, I could not get interested in the main character, Richard. As a result, I found this story to be a dud. It focuses on Richard’s inner life (who cares?), his relationship with his son (ditto), and his relationship with his girlfriend (see two previous parentheticals). Whether this piece was designed as a character study or a full-blown story with a plot, I couldn’t wait to put it down.

    The problem is not only that Richard is unlikeable (not fatal to creating an interesting character) but that he lacks nuance or even basic credibility as a character. We are expected to believe that he is a 51-year-old Lothario who attracts married women, including the thirty-year-old Ana, she of the soapy skin and muscular legs. Yet throughout the story he is presented as relentlessly weak, insecure, nasty, and selfish, with no redeeming qualities. He does not seem to have even superficial virtues, like material success, George Clooney-like good looks, brute intelligence, or a strict work ethic. (What kind of work does Richard do, anyway? Ironically, the shallowness of Richard’s son is illustrated by his failure to exhibit interest in Richard’s work – a failure that is equally true of Cline.)

    It has not been my observation that women pursue men old enough to be their fathers when the men are evil versions of a Woody Allen character, one lacking an Allen character’s endearing sense of vulnerability or humor.

    Even in the details, Richard’s lack of credibility persists, presented in writing that is often comical, though unintentionally so. For instance, in one scene Richard “raked his fingers through the hair above his belly.” Note that the hair is not on his belly but is somewhere “above” his belly – but it is not clear what body area the writer has in mind. His chest? Or maybe by “above,” Cline is referring to some perpendicular distance between the skin of Richard’s belly and the top of the tufts of hair stretching up into the air as Richard lies on his back?

    Location aside, if the hair is plentiful enough to be “raked,” like leaves covering a lawn, I’m thinking Ana’s ardor for Richard, inexplicable to begin with, would have started diminishing the first time she saw him shirtless. I’d recommend that Cline watch “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” especially the scene where the Steve Carell character’s friends take him to a salon where his copious body hair is painfully waxed away as part of an effort to make him presentable to women.

    “The white wine tasted like granite,” we are told, from Richard’s point of view. What is a reader to do with this? Lick his kitchen counter, to imagine what the wine tasted like? (Even then, what about TNY readers with slate counter tops?) This seems like careless, lazy writing – the author thought “tasted like granite” was clever and never thought about it again after first drafting the sentence. For Richard to convey this to us underscores his flimsiness as a character.

    Another beauty – Richard’s paramours are described as “[w]omen whose lingerie was haunted by the prick of the plastic tag they’d tried to snap off so that he wouldn’t realize it was new.” Nothing like haunted lingerie to produce a nice chill from a story. Especially lingerie haunted by the prick.

    It may be possible to write a compelling main character while having zero compassion for that character. But I’ve never seen it work, and it certainly doesn’t here. Cline’s interview makes clear that she was intent on creating a monster, but what she should have done is create a monstrous human character. As contrasted with a monstrous monster lacking credibility.

    To throw in one final film reference – note that Ana’s husband is “an importer of olive oil and other things kept in dark, cool warehouses.” An importer of olive oil? Really? Mario Puzo and Marlon Brando must both be spinning in their graves, to be associated with this work even remotely. Maybe in an earlier draft the husband made Richard an offer he couldn’t refuse? Come to think of it, maybe Cline’s agent has compromising pictures of TNY’s fiction editors!

  11. David April 5, 2017 at 9:46 pm

    Good lord, Roger! That was quite the review! I don’t think I have had more fun reading a contribution here than I did reading this. You had me laughing out loud several times. Well done, sir!

  12. Roger April 5, 2017 at 10:00 pm

    Glad to help us find something to enjoy about this piece, David ….

  13. Dennis Lang April 6, 2017 at 6:04 pm

    Heck, having just discussed a little Antonioni a few days ago, this story is an Antonioni movie! Intensely visual, could almost be a screenplay. Some unspeakable event, never identified, encircles all the characters, driving them, while the adults in the room can hardly relate to each other, as they nonetheless act on each other. out of urgency or boredom. The sterility is palpable. With one exception not all is arid and empty. The only vibrancy present is between the teenagers, Rowan and Livia–emotionally alive, gesture, touch, expression.
    Fascinating!.

  14. Eric April 10, 2017 at 1:19 pm

    I rather liked this, and liked it more on the second reading. Cline has a terrific eye for telling details, and is very good at coming up with the right words for conveying them. As with most effective short stories, she sticks to one theme here–in this case a man getting his emotional comeuppance for his selfishness in handling his relationships, despite his immense shrewdness about such things. I thought that in general it worked well, especially in the first half.

    I do agree that some of the devices the author comes up with in the latter part are kind of clunky–the change in perspective to Paul Frisch, the lack of a Big Reveal–but they do serve to move the narrative forward. The problem with a story like this, of course, is that, when the protagonist is a pretty despicable person, the author needs to trick things up a bit to keep us from having to spend the whole story exploring the depths of the jerk’s jerkiness, which is not a lot of fun by itself. Perhaps some different tricks would have worked better–some bits of black humor maybe, or a shift in perspective to Liz rather than Frisch. I definitely wanted to know Liz better.

  15. Dennis Lang April 10, 2017 at 3:02 pm

    I’m too lazy to review all the comments, but from earlier–you guys are a rough crowd!! Except for Eric–sort of– anyone else appreciate Ms. Cline’s work here?
    I think she tells us all we have to know. No necessary details or back story is missing, including whatever Rowan did to get himself expelled. Every word contributes to the total effect. She paints a vivid landscape with the information she chooses to give us, inviting us in to the lives of these characters and the world they inhabit as an extension of their personalities. For instance, the description of Richard’s “relationship”–to his pills– in the first scene: “…like the touch of a dance partner.” Wow! Tells us all we have to know about Richard, from affair to affair, estranged from his ex and his son, a middle-aged drifter, clueless about Rowan and what may drive him. (Maybe Rowan is Richard 35 years earlier but now he’s a rebel harboring antipathy to his father, and his life.Rowan is the one character stuck in a world he didn’t choose but was chosen for him.)

  16. Eric April 10, 2017 at 4:38 pm

    Of course I meant “Ana” rather than “Liz” in my comment above. I would have liked to know some of what was going through her head when during and after their “date”.

  17. Roger April 10, 2017 at 5:45 pm

    Well, we do have an idea of what was going through her head on that one particular date, provided via flashback.

  18. Greg April 16, 2017 at 8:30 pm

    What an interesting thread – Thanks guys for your tremendous insight….and entertainment. Bravo!

    Sean – I especially enjoyed your reasons why we needed to know what the boy did. I’m sure you read Julian Barnes’ Booker Award winning novel, “The Sense of an Ending”. Imagine if Barnes did not reveal WHY the boy committed suicide? Of course, then we wouldn’t have been able to appreciate the devastation that life sometimes serves us for making ‘mistakes’.

  19. Esther Smoller April 18, 2017 at 1:12 pm

    I did where is it?

  20. Greg April 18, 2017 at 10:08 pm

    Esther – You didn’t also draw the conclusion that Adrian killed himself out of extreme shame?

  21. Ken June 14, 2017 at 3:43 pm

    I can be rather anxious at times, and so I found this interesting as a study of anxiety and how our moods can fluctuate. This interiority worked for me. As for the externals, the story is definitely derivative (as one of the above critics noted) of writers such as Salinger, Irving and others and I also would have to agree that it’s hard to be involved with an unlikable main character. There are too many New Yorker stories about unpleasant rich people flailing in their self-made purgatories.

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