Claire Messud deserves better sales and better press than she gets. I understand her sales are not really up there and the reviews a bit mixed. There are many lesser writers who get more of both. Once again, we prove that there’s no such thing as justice in art.
I’ve read only her The Last Life, which I found poignant and insightful and which gave me a window into something I knew little or nothing about–the French occupation of and expulsion from Algeria. It’s a book I won’t forget. In some ways I preferred it to The Emperor’s Children because its subject seems as if it counts more. That’s ironic, I suppose, because the overarching theme of The Emperor’s Children is about what and who is truly significant and what and who is clothed in pretense and thus stands naked as the fairy tale emperor. There is no doubt about the significant trials of the Algerian French trying to reintegrate into French society. Their struggles resonate in hundreds of societies around the world. I’m less certain about the struggles of Messud’s Manhattan minions. That aside, she’s given us a fascinating cast.
Messud’s chosen a group of Brown University chums, now inhabiting New York with varying degrees of success and angst. The milieu is sort of mid-upper class. It’s not the world of diplomats and limos and inherited money. It’s a world of journalism and literature and public television. There’s some fame, some influence, some money–but not a lot of any of those things. There’s a great Sex in the City kind of mix–a spoiled girl living off daddy’s money and off a book advance for a work that has been years in the making (it’s a book about clothes, which becomes a kind of metaphor for the novel’s central conflicts. There are a couple midwest transplants–one a hardworking TV producer, the other a charismatic but confused gay gamin who writes reviews when he can get published and does temp work secretly (because it’s so declasse) on the side.
The rich girl’s father is a famous liberal writer/journalist, her mother a lawyer for the downtrodden. And into the mix comes a lost adolescent misfit, the nephew/cousin of the journalist family and an Australian mountebank who comes to town to start a revolutionary magazine (financed by an Australian publishing tycoon named Merton Name sound familiar?) which will challenge the credentials of the rich girl’s father. Messud artfully guides us through the connections among this group–giving each a close-third-person chapter at a time–through a number of pairings and partings, taking us to swanky restaurants with high-class menus and elevated conversation. The true stuff of comedy of manners.
Darkness lurks primarily in the personality and maneuvers of the Australian and the nephew, at first. But the events are generally not only not cataclysmic, but almost trivial. This is a book of interiors, the true definition of a character-driven novel. Messud’s prose is full of parenthetical interweavings that give many levels of a character’s thoughts and feelings almost simultaneously like a musical chord. A representative scene:
“You thought quite rightly that I might welcome your opinion. Which I do, please don’t misunderstand me. But I can’t fail to suspect–” Seeley was interrupted by the arrival of their hors d’oeuvres, a divers pair of glistening, wispy constructions adrift on oceans of white porcelain, hers a supposed chevre-and-bell pepper mille-feuille (or Napoleon) and his recognizable as a salad only by the three emerging spears well-oiled endive that stood guard over their huddled, intestinal beet-root and marinated onion core. When the near-invisible waiters had retreated, leaving not so much as a fingerprint on the giant plates, he resumed exactly where he had left off, a suspension at which Danielle, privately of course, marveled. “That your motives for speaking to me, indeed your motives for inviting me to lunch–a delight, I must say, too long postponed, and one about which I’m thrilled, but nevertheless–these motives, surely are not truly altruistic.”
A long passage to quote, but that’s how this book is–layers of experience, thought, emotion, time stirred and blended into a substance different than any of the component parts. However, so much is made of so little that I often wondered when we’d get past the salad to the beef. It’s a testimony to Messud’s prose that I found myself drawn into the book anyhow. This kind of thing generally gives me the ho-hums.
There is near the end a disaster, however, that changes all and everything, and the way that the author integrates the event and characters is a wonder. Breathtaking at times.
I’d like to argue with someone about one element, however. Messud stakes a great deal on one rather despicable character. She works hard to give him enough credibility and sympathy to make up for his narcissistic misanthropy and thus partially justify his reprehensible acts of betrayal. I wonder if he’s meant to give us a window into the inhumane consequences of always speaking “truth” or if he’s meant to show the martyred state of those who dare to do so. I don’t know. there might even be a third or fourth possibility. Good book club question.
The Emperor’s Children is a good read for anyone, but probably a must-read for those drawn to these kinds of narratives. It’s timely (probably too much so, mentioning folks as contemporary as Tina Brown.), almost torn from the headlines, and offers a substantive and eloquent exploration of the lives of today’s thirty-something urban professionals.