For her fourth novel, The Emperor’s Children, Claire Messud has put aside her customary sobriety and composed a suspenseful, dark, pitch-perfect comedy of manners and morals about a small collection of individuals who aspire to—or might have stepped from—the “Intelligencer” section of New York magazine or the “Off the Record” column of this publication.
The story is structured as a literary fugue, whose voices comprise a trio of childless Brown University graduates in New York City, all on the cusp of turning 30, and an outsider—a 19-year-old dropout from SUNY Oswego, whose life secret (he gets admitted to Harvard and can’t afford to attend) puts him on the road to journalistic terrorism, social oblivion and an unknowable future on the run in the dark.
Ornamenting and offsetting this quartet are parents of various abilities to parent; a passel of lovers, most of them not very lovable; a Billy Budd–like, newly orphaned black teenager; a languishing Abyssinian cat, called The Pope, who can barely drag himself from one room to the next without heaving onto an Oriental carpet; and—my own favorite character—a maid named Aurora, who has the clearest vision in the book and who confides only in herself (we get to eavesdrop).
Set in the spring, summer and fall of 2001, The Emperor’s Children can also be considered a work of historical fiction: The reader is expected to open the book knowing that these late-twentysomethings, who yearn to be stars in East Coast media and intellectual circles, developed their expectations of entitlement when they reached their majority in the early 1990’s, a recycled Jazz Age of lavish magazine start-ups and “renovations” of older publications costing a king’s ransom. Those were the days of earnest professorial disquisitions on every detail of mass culture except for the staggering greed of the music and entertainment companies that controlled it; of the dot-com rollercoaster and the platinum parachute; of cross- and trans- everything; of the end of history and the death of art and the extinction of merit as a major consideration for any sort of evaluation.
And why shouldn’t they be stars? They have Ivy League credentials, glamorous contacts, natural good looks, and elegance acquired at power tables in the best restaurants and in bathrooms in the hottest new clubs. Joyously for the reader, their expectations from life provide a gigantic target for the novelist, who, with grace and a formidable expertise at plot-making, one by one dismantles them.
Ms. Messud’s novel offers the notion that, with the destruction of the World Trade Center, this entire milieu underwent a new “feeling,” and suddenly the comfort and security of family and close friends became felt priorities. The author, however, is also a realist about human nature—in places, scathingly so. And she’s a master at demonstrating how one can’t win for losing when a jerk is pulling the strings. By the novel’s end, Murray Thwaite, the self-made “emperor” of the title, has blithely seduced and abandoned a woman half his age (after an extended affair) even though Annabel, his wife of 33 years, already offers him tender lovemaking at his whim as well as wholehearted emotional support; works full-time to help sustain the family’s lifestyle (which includes a rambling Upper West Side apartment, a summer compound in Stockbridge and live-in help); cooks gourmet meals on demand; and otherwise manages the household to provide the most comfortable environment for her husband, the country’s most lauded moderately liberal pundit, to fulfill his writer’s destiny.
Meanwhile, another young woman—who’s married her eligible, youngish, handsome, dashing, spectacularly cynical and deeply sensual employer in a late-summer wedding that, in the age of Jane Austen, might have ended such a novel as pure comedy—discovers before the cake is cut that she plays second fiddle to her husband’s ambitions and sense of self-preservation. Austen may have set up this union, but George Eliot and Oscar Wilde have officiated at it.
For all their flaws and bad behavior, one cares about these characters; and one reason may be that, well before the wake-up call of national disaster, most of them experience inklings of how vulnerable they make themselves in their willful efforts to nudge the world into conformity with their self-absorbed fantasies.
Of the three college chums, the impecunious yet defiantly freelance (“regularity was bourgeois”) book reviewer Julius Clarke—Eurasian, promiscuous and gay—is most fully enthralled by celebrity for its own sake. In this, he far surpasses his pals: the lonely and unhappy yet professionally disciplined television producer Danielle Minkoff, and the beauteous, violet-eyed and somewhat clueless Marina Thwaite, an aspiring intellectual and cultural critic (and daughter of Annabel and the famous, fatuous Murray). And yet even Julius, “an inchoate ball of ambition,” is aware that he himself—unwilling to search for a full-time job, picky about the writing assignments he’ll consider, temping only when the bank account hits bottom, reluctant to give up his Champagne tastes—won’t thrive on what is, to all intents and purposes, nothing. (“He had soon, soon, to find something to be ambitious for; otherwise he risked terminal resentment, from which there was no return.”)
In dramatic contrast, we find Frederick (Bootie) Tubb, the Oswego dropout 10 years younger than Julius and his friends. For much of the novel, they treat Bootie as if he’s of another, lower species, the way the South Park kids treat the hapless Kenny. And Bootie treats himself just about the same way, despite his truly remarkable intellectual gift: At 19, with only a diploma from high school (where he was valedictorian), he’s a peer of his uncle Murray in intellectual chutzpah, as the uncle is the first to realize. Son of a widow who doesn’t understand him, overweight and clumsy, lacking both sophistication born of experience and the most fundamental intuition regarding the ambitions and agendas of those around him, he might be thought of as belonging to Gen DMZ.
But it’s the nerd-loser Bootie who slogs through Emerson’s essays, Robert Musil and other world literature as if reading were a life-and-death matter—and who, unlike Marina or Danielle or Julius, remembers what he reads; who has the idealism as well as the nerve to pick a few bones with Tolstoy over War and Peace; who sincerely, if with destructive naïveté, tries to apply what he learns from his reading to his life; and who makes an effort to develop the highest literary and moral standards in the vacuum of a social isolation so intense that he might as well be living on Crusoe’s island as in the 212 area code.
Not so long ago, commentators like Murray Thwaite were ruminating on the question of whether it would be possible for novelists to write persuasive fiction in the wake of 9/11. The Emperor’s Children is outstanding proof that they can.
Mindy Aloff’s Dance Anecdotes: Stories from the Worlds of Ballet, Broadway, the Ballroom, and Modern Dance (Oxford) was published in May.