“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!