“What Can You Do with a General”
by Emma Cline
from the February 4, 2019 issue of The New Yorker

Irving Berlin’s song “What Can You Do with a General” serves as the basis for the title of Emma Cline’s story. That line continues: “When he stops being a general.” In this story, Cline is exploring that idea — what to do with someone who once had great authority but no longer — in a domestic realm. It’s Christmas time, and the father, John, no in his sixties, doesn’t possess the power he once had. His children are no longer children (though that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re prepared for adulthood). Still, we find John in the first paragraph laying out plans for them:

Linda was inside, on her phone — to who, this early? From the hot tub, John watched her pace in her robe and an old swimsuit in a faded tropical print that probably belonged to one of the girls. It was nice to drift a little in the water, to glide to the other side of the tub, holding his coffee above the waterline, the jets churning away. The fig tree was bare, had been for a month now, but the persimmon trees were full. The kids should bake cookies when they get here, he thought, persimmon cookies. Wasn’t that what Linda used to make, when the kids were little? Or what else — jam, maybe? All this fruit going to waste, it was disgusting. He’d get the yard guy to pick a few crates of persimmons before the kids came, so that all they’d have to do was bake them. Linda would know where to find the recipe.

This story is a rich look at this family coming together and showing it’s always been dysfunctional. The opening section is a bit of a litany — well written — of the children’s deficiencies. Without overtly saying it, Cline let’s us in on the inherent tensions and I found myself gearing up for something from John Cheever. It certainly maintains that vibe.

I still haven’t read Cline’s 2016 debut The Girls, but I’m curious. Cline’s writing is strong, even if — as you can see in the comments section on our post about “Northeast Regional” here — her subject matter doesn’t always connect (at least to the mostly men who commented there). I think we’ll continue to see great things from her.

I’m off on holiday for a bit, but please comment below to let me know what you think about “What Can You Do with a General” and Cline’s work. I look forward to your thoughts!

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By |2019-01-28T15:00:47+00:00January 28th, 2019|Categories: Emma Cline, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |15 Comments

15 Comments

  1. David January 28, 2019 at 4:10 pm

    In my comments on “Northeast Regional”, almost two years ago, I mentioned being curious to read something else by her. That, somehow, never happened until now. And I must say I had almost the same reaction this time as I had last time. Nothing particularly bad about the writing, a couple of nitpicky things stood out to me as strange, and I was generally bored by the characters. I think this really is a case of an author just having different interests that to not mesh with mine.
    .
    But there might be more to it than that. When I read the author interview I was fairly surprised. I did not see John as a man who had been abusive and other than his daughter’s flinch in the car (which I actually thought was supposed to suggest her current relationship might be abusive) I saw nothing in the story to even hint at that. In fact, the first third of the story read to me like a description of an episode from a sitcom with the jokes removed, which is to say, a story with the story removed. The details about what the mother is reading seem designed to make her look silly and the couple’s relationship with the dog seems straight out of either Modern Family or Life In Pieces, two mediocre sitcoms.
    .
    I’ll mention just one of my nitpicky things just to see if it might just be me. I have never heard anyone who isn’t British or who has not spend a good deal of time in Britain use the word “anorak”. Yet it is a word John, a sixty-plus year old American blue-collar man uses. Is it actually a work he would likely know and use? It stuck out to me as odd.
    .
    So I guess I’m not really interested in reading more of Cline’s work, but at the same time I’m not convinced tat it is entirely her fault. We might just be two people living on two different wavelengths.

  2. Reader January 29, 2019 at 7:50 pm

    This isn’t likely something I’ll return to, but it’s well written and well crafted. Overall, I’d say it’s a strong, traditional family story that delineates a number of interpersonal family relationships and disconnects that rang true to me as far as they capture the kinds of parent-child/spousal dynamics that seem pretty commonplace in our current time and place. John’s failures as a parent and husband, his longing for “better times” (times that nobody else in the household is interested in reliving), his desire to be closer to the people around him who he’s played a direct though possibly unwitting role in driving away–it’s all believably portrayed. Since unveiling those dynamics and showing their pallid underbelly seems to be all the story is trying to do, I’d say it’s a success. Not jarring or provocative or overly insightful but certainly admirable.

    My one real criticism is that the atmospheric feel of the story as well as the characters–the millennials tethered to their smartphones, the subdued mother hovering about in the background, the abusive-turned-pacified father figure confronting his own ineptitude–read as a bit over-familiar. The third-person narrative voice, despite being centered on John, also prevents us from really inhabiting John’s psyche enough to unearth his own more idiosyncratic, potentially unnerving truths. Consequently, from an authorial voice standpoint, the story keeps its distance and thus lacks an edge of distinctiveness. Something similar to this probably could be (and in a sense, has been) written by a number of talented young authors. However, I’m not sure Cline can be held entirely accountable for this. It’s probably more a matter of these characters being representative of a consumer-centric, late-capitalist, middle-class American population that’s increasingly trending towards a narrower and narrower set of behaviors/qualities. Anyone writing straightforward realistic fiction set in today’s America would probably be forced to tread in similar waters.

    David, as for John being abusive in the past, there are a number of spots where it’s pointed out rather clearly (albeit indirectly). One example is the scene where Sasha calls the police after a fight and the mother explains that “it was an accident”. There are other allusions, but that one stands out in my mind. Also, John works in an office, so I think the idea is that he might be more white-collar with potentially blue-collar roots/nostalgia.

  3. Thomas January 31, 2019 at 11:51 am

    I thought this story was fantastic, skillful. Cheever is spot on. Also, Ann Beattie. The tension simmers, just below the surface, but never boils over.

  4. William February 3, 2019 at 3:01 pm

    I’m with David and Reader on this one. I liked this, from Reader:

    “Since unveiling those dynamics and showing their pallid underbelly seems to be all the story is trying to do, I’d say it’s a success. Not jarring or provocative or overly insightful but certainly admirable.”

    I’d say it this way: while Cline moves through the story’s setup surefootedly, it all comes to naught in the end. I was left wondering – “So?”

    Also – for a story about anger, there is very little anger demonstrated. In fact, none that I can find. The man has a brief spasm of anger, then squelches it. Later we find that he took drugs that “neutered” his anger. There is a scene from the past where the daughter called the police. We might think that is where his anger erupted. But the scene is not described, only referred to.

    Is Cline afraid of anger?

  5. Ken February 3, 2019 at 3:43 pm

    All I’ll say is that I agree with David and Reader and William. And…I too thought the word “anorak” was oddly used by an American character.

  6. David February 3, 2019 at 4:17 pm

    Since a couple of people have pointed out the mention of calling the police, I looked up that paragraph and re-read it. I see why I didn’t make much of it then (or now). First of all, we are told that Sasha was nine when she made the call. Ok. Well, there was a news story this past Christmas about a boy who called 911 because he didn’t like the Christmas gift his parents gave him. And another last fall about a kid calling 911 for help with math homework. And another from a kid who called to complain that her parents were making her clean up her room. Which is to say, telling me a 9-year-old called 911 on her parents and they were able to satisfy the police that it was a mistake does not tell me that there is anything abusive going on. Just that the kid did what kids sometimes do. And when the same paragraph ends by telling us about the mother’s weird obsession “with a book of low-fat recipes that all seemed to use mango salsa” and her belief that she had communicated with the ghost of her dead dog from childhood, there is even less reason to think this is a paragraph to be taken seriously.
    .
    In the end, the kids seem a bit screwed up because the mother seems to be very flaky and the father is kind of clueless and hopeless. Much like, as I said before, a mediocre sitcom (without the jokes). I go one step further than William. If this is a story about anger, not only is the anger not described, I didn’t see anywhere that it was even really referred to.
    .
    And not for a brief tangent. I recently remembered where I first heard the word “anorak”. I was in high school when one of many Canadian New Wave bands with British lead singers (seriously – we had a LOT of them in the early 80s) put out a song called “Tears On Your Anorak”. The band was called The Drivers and the year was 1983. The chorus goes “I can tell by the tears on your anorak / That you’re never never ever c-c-coming back”. Ah, the 80s!

  7. Brian February 9, 2019 at 3:47 am

    I think it is nuts how someone could read this story and not note the menacing undertone that infects the whole thing, not note the looming specter of abuse—he’s throwing food in his daugheter’s face for not eating it, he’s given an ultimatum to go to a therapist and prescribed sedatives, is locked out of the house presumably to protect the children and his wife during one of his rages, his wife takes the children to her folks place and yes, the cops are called after what is hinted was a domestic abuse incident that his wife had to explain away (‘it was an accident’ could not be any clearer a nod to the language of the abused). He specifically describes how he felt the anger melt away over the years, and we glimpse it again when Sasha opens her present too early. This is a story about the imprint and ripple effects of abuse, and how they settle with time.

  8. Reader February 9, 2019 at 1:40 pm

    Brain, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here. The story is certainly concerned with the aftermath and familial fractures of abuse, not the abuse itself.

  9. Shilo February 9, 2019 at 4:14 pm

    Is this really the best the New Yorker can do? The comparisons to Cheever are unwarranted and superficial. I thought the story was clunky, boring, obvious, and unoriginal. Cline telegraphs everything from a mile out. Maybe I’ve just read too many stories about dysfunctional middle class ennui… if you’re gonna do what’s already been done to death you better put a little English on it. I’m sorry but there is no there there.

  10. Anon E. Mouse February 14, 2019 at 1:34 am

    Boring pointless story. Nowhere close to Cheever. Is this the modern state of short fiction? Seems everything celebrated lately is contrived, bland, and reads like a first draft by a college student. I kept wondering why I cared until the end, when I was certain that I didn’t. Good thing I know he sucked the salt off the popcorn and the dog shat green. Waste of time. I subscribe to New Yorker for the short stories… Might have to rethink that after their spotty taste.

  11. William February 17, 2019 at 9:15 pm

    I went back to re-read this story to see if I had missed the abusive father. I got as far as Sasha, the overeating daughter who is probably going with a married man, saying of the dog: “He hates us. So much.” As David said, a sitcom with the comedy taken out.

  12. mehbe February 21, 2019 at 10:07 am

    John must be an L.L. Bean customer – they’ve been selling anoraks for many years.

    I thought the story was a decent exploration of a family with grown kids and a father who had once been fairly abusive, told mostly from that father’s current point of view. Not a pretty picture. I felt a strange, stifling oppression while reading it, which I think might make the author happy.

    The DNA kit idea was interesting, but could have been elaborated a bit more. The miserable dog with a pacemaker may have been just a bit too much, but only a bit.

  13. David February 21, 2019 at 7:32 pm

    mehbe’s comment reminds me of something I have wondered about this story for a while now. How does it make sense to give all of your kids DNA kits when they all have the same genetic heritage? Is this supposed to be some odd way of John trying to imply that the kids might not have the same biological parents? That never made any sense to me.

  14. mehbe February 21, 2019 at 10:02 pm

    David –

    Each child has a unique genome, one that isn’t shared with the siblings. So individual kits would make sense for each one to discover their own genetic make-up (to the extent that consumer kits make that possible).

    Another aspect of the kits for each family member is that each one could then pursue their genealogy online in the way they want. For example, Chloe might like making online connections with distant relatives she’s never before heard about, while Sam might completely avoid that stuff.

  15. David February 21, 2019 at 10:30 pm

    mehbe, if they have the same biological parents, then the children must have all the same biological ancestors and thus if one of them turns out to be 23% from Poland and 5% from east Asia, they all are. If any one is descended from Henry VIII, they all are. They each will have different genetic facts about their own physical selves, but the DNA kit is for tracing genetic history, which for blood siblings must be identical.

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