The Emperor’s Children
by Claire Messud
Knopf. 431 pp. $25.00
Claire Messud was born in the United States in 1966 of a Canadian mother and an Algerian French father, grew up in Canada and Australia, and was educated here (Yale) and in England (Cambridge). Her work to this point—including the novels When the World Was Steady (1995) and The Last Life (1999) and the two novellas comprising The Hunters (2001) —has tended to reflect this cosmopolitan background, while also earning her a reputation as a kind of “writer’s writer.” Married with two children to the critic James Wood, she has also taught creative writing and reviewed fiction for the Nation.
With her new novel, The Emperor’s Children, her first set mainly in the United States, Messud may have come home in more ways than one. In it she engagingly expands outward from the closely worked embroidery of her previous books to the wide canvas of the contemporary comedy of manners. The book has been received with exceptional enthusiasm by story-hungry critics and readers. It landed Messud for the first time on the bestseller list, was chosen by the New York Times as one of the top ten books of 2006, and has been long-listed for the Man Booker Prize.
The opening chapters of The Emperor’s Children find the main characters in Sydney, Australia; Watertown, New York; and Stockbridge, Massachusetts. But they are all headed to, or headed back to, New York City. It is March 2001 and the glittering metropolis on the Hudson is the intellectual and cultural mecca—soon enough, on September 11, to be targeted as the anti-mecca—of the modern world, the place where idea-oriented characters like these believe they must make their mark. How they accomplish this, or fail to accomplish it, in ignorance of the catastrophic events lying only months ahead is the substance of this interesting and intelligent book.
At the core of the novel is a trio of friends who are fellow graduates of Brown now rounding thirty and keenly aware that they have not exactly fulfilled their much-vaunted potential. In typical American style, they are from varied backgrounds. Julius Clarke, homosexual, part-Vietnamese, an aspiring culture-broker, writes “devastating” and attention-getting reviews of books, film, and TV, but lacks any serious focus and is broke. The beautiful and privileged WASP princess Marina Thwaite, native New Yorker and daughter of a famed left-wing intellectual journalist, has been blocked for some years in trying to complete a popular study of the significance of fashions in children’s clothes. Danielle Minkoff, not beautiful but smarter and harder-working than Marina, is the most thoughtful of the three, a film producer who yearns to do a socially important documentary on the treatment of Australian aborigines but settles for one on botched liposuctions instead.
Peripheral to this inner circle but central to the plot are two other, equally grandiose characters. The first is Marina’s younger cousin Frederick Tubb, nicknamed Bootie, a dropout from a lackluster upstate college who takes Ralph Waldo Emerson as his guide to genius. Introverted, unstable, sometimes repellent, but also fiercely perceptive and uncompromising, he eventually becomes amanuensis to his left-wing uncle and idol, Murray Thwaite.
The second, an Australian with the portmanteau name Ludovic Seeley, is possessed of a quasi-Dickensian persona—slithery, slippery, snake-like. Cynical yet at times insightful, serious yet mocking (his nickname is Ludo), he is starting up a new magazine backed by a media tycoon obviously modeled on Rupert Murdoch. Intended as “a no-holds barred organ of truth,” The Monitor will offer scathing criticisms of contemporary social icons and reveal the nakedness underneath the well-clothed cultural establishment.
This last trope becomes both the theme and the method of the novel, which turns on a series of secrets and exposures, or near-exposures. In the course of the year 2001, these characters should be staking their claims as adult participants in the life of their times, but instead they find their hopes and plans mostly dashed. Julius, sidetracked as the stay-at-home mate of a financial whiz, is pulled from his imitation domesticity by the thrill of semi-anonymous sexual encounters. Danielle’s loneliness lands her temporarily in the arms of Murray Thwaite himself, her best friend’s father. Marina takes a job with The Monitor and marries the ominously ambitious Ludo, but when 9/11 sinks the project—its backer decides that caustic lampooning is no longer an appropriate mode—the marriage appears chilled as well.
What is the matter with these young people, members of a generation groomed to entitlement and expansive self-definition? This, the novel suggests, is precisely what the matter is. Reflecting on their situation, Murray Thwaite muses that they have been stymied “by the very lack of smallness, by the absence of any limitations against which to rebel.” Pampered and over-praised by indulgent parents (Julius’s father marvels at his son’s merest trifles), they have been prevented at all costs from seeing what they might actually be—namely, “ordinary”—and from making the most of it.
Their education, Messud also makes clear, seems to have supplied them with even less formation than their parents. Danielle, in order to remind herself “that she was, or might be, a person of seriousness, a thinker in some sweeping, ubiquitous way,” has kept some books from Brown “that she had acquired for courses and never read.” Two she mentions are “Fredric Jameson and Kant’s Critique of Judgment”: a slyly perfect jab at today’s curricular jumble of the ridiculous and the sublime, the Marxist debunker alongside the classical liberal giant.
In any event, it is soon apparent that what our three protagonists love is not so much ideas as the idea of having ideas, of being, as a sadder but wiser Julius will put it, at the Party of Big Ideas. If the emperor has no clothes, neither, it seems, do his children. The Emperor’s Children Have No Clothes is, indeed, the title of Marina’s finally completed book, another intended exposé of social pretension and cultural form that exposes as much about its author’s condition as about its subject.
Messud’s previous work, though sometimes absorbing, often seems overwrought and overwritten, caught up in intricate interiorities and lingering over every vague nuance of feeling. There is much less of that here. The oncoming disaster of 9/11 acts as a sort of aesthetic equivalent of a hanging, concentrating the author’s mind as she skillfully unfolds the interlocking strands of her story. The story itself, moreover, is delivered with plenty of crisp observation, rich description, and lively characterization, even when it comes to such subsidiary figures as Danielle’s mother or Murray Thwaite’s wife Annabel.
In a book whose satire could quickly wear thin or shrill, Messud’s portraits are satisfyingly rounded. If at times her would-be cultural taste-makers are needy, greedy, sneaky, dopey, grouchy, and mean, they can also be kind and generous, capable of insight into both others and themselves. Messud is hardly without sympathy for them and their struggles, and can conjure up real poignancy from a sudden glimpse into the adult loneliness of an only child, the abrupt deflation of once-buoyant friendships, the flailings of spoiled young people who can neither follow the path of their parents nor find their own way.
Nice, too, is how New York itself becomes a kind of character in the novel. Danielle’s exaltation in the first flush of her affair with Murray Thwaite is mirrored in the view from the window of her tiny high-rise studio on lower Fifth Avenue:
Danielle was struck by the glory of the city around them, its glittering stalagmites and arterial avenues, strung with the beaded headlights of the ever-starting, ever-stopping traffic. Even the dark patches, the flat rooftops of the brick and brownstone buildings to the immediate south and west, or the hollow she knew to be the playground by day—even those ellipses were vital to the pattern. Farther downtown, a cluster of skyscrapers rose, alight, into the night, stolid mercantile reassurance in the mad whimsy of the city.
When two of those stolid skyscrapers come crashing down, so too does the affair that has given her such pleasure, as her lover scurries back to his mate and marriage.
Murray Thwaite is in some ways the heart of this book, the character against whom most of the others, willy-nilly, have to measure themselves. Ludo and Bootie see through him, sooner in one case than in the other, but this spouter of threadbare clichés about questioning received ideas and righting all injustice, none of which fills the void even for him (hence, he suggests, his affairs), continues to be honored by “his public” both before and after the catastrophe of 9/11. Yes, the towers have fallen, but Murray Thwaite, radical relic of the 60’s, still stands, finding himself in greater demand than ever. His “balanced” response to the catastrophe is dryly rendered by Messud as
a reasoned middle ground that, while not stretching so far as those who claimed America deserved it, nevertheless gently reminded his suffering compatriots of the persistent agonies of the West Bank, or of the ever-growing population of disenfranchised Muslim youth around the globe. He argued in favor of understanding rather than blind hostility.
Not only does 9/11 reinforce Murray’s reputation as a sage, but it spares him the merciless unmasking that is Bootie’s intended contribution to the now-aborted magazine. All this leaves the intellectual and cultural landscape even more desolate than before. Murray represents the novel’s adult generation, the one that prospered handsomely by questioning all authority. But now, with the dissolution of any generally acknowledged authority that one might question, he preaches into the emptiness. As Danielle says of Ludo’s short-circuited agenda via The Monitor, it was to be a “nihilists’ revolution,” offering nothing in which to believe.
The book ends with an air of inconclusiveness, of things left unfinished, ambiguous, suspended. In a way, this inconclusiveness is a tribute to Messud’s novelistic talents—she has given us too much characterization and storyline for one book, and has left us longing for a sequel. In another way, it testifies to an unwillingness or inability, hers no less than her characters’, to imagine any other terms of existence than the ones in which they live and, futilely, writhe.
For all its comedy, The Emperor’s Children makes an undeniably serious point. It renders an incisive portrait of a class whose glittering city by the river is now partly in ruins, itself a symbol of a society detached from its roots, fed by shopworn platitudes, without deeply held beliefs of any kind, mortally threatened by people so steeped in their system of belief that they will commit mass murder in its name. Still, in the end, and especially when compared with a novel like Johanna Kaplan’s O My America! (1980) —a truly daring exposure of New York’s (Jewish) intelligentsia—it is also something of a copout. As C.S. Lewis devastatingly remarked about modern skepticism in general, “the whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it, not to arrive at nothing.”