Clare Messud’s The Emperor’s Children is a novel that obstinately defies easy classification. It is, at various times, and often at once, a contemporary comedy of manners, a postmodern fairy tale, a murder mystery sans a body, and an apocalyptic canto.
The novel begins with a tony dinner party in Sydney in March 2001, where Danielle Minkoff, a bright, ambitious television documentarian, is down under to research the Australian government’s reparations to Aborigines and pitch a possible parallel to African Americans in the States. She is introduced to Ludovic Seeley, a pale, patrician golden boy of Australian intellectual periodicals who intends to foment revolution in New York. Of the literary sort.
Set to an erratic tempo and slightly out of tune, these pages incline us to an Austen-like score: social satire counterpoised with romantic interludes thrumming with lyrical lines of English countryside, or in this case, New York City, to where Danielle returns and Ludovic arrives and where most of the book is set. Slightly overwritten with excessive descriptions (the living room’s aubergine paint job, Danielle’s spackled makeup job, the triptych of Sapphic beauties lounging languorously on the sofa) and dialogue that is at once rampant and forced, the first chapter leans precariously towards Romance, a genre of statuesque beauties and stilted prose.
In the second chapter, though, Messud changes voice and tone, leaving behind the trappings of the light-hearted (and perhaps light-weight) social comedy and introduces a more troubled and troubling character. Frederick “Bootie” Tubb has dropped out of Oswego College because he is unable to accept the “sham” of higher education and the collusion of his shallow, grade-grubbing fellow students. Instead he surrounds himself with the classics (the melancholy, austere Russians prominent and Austen conspicuously absent) to pursue a course of autodidactism. He will read himself to august heights. That is, of course, if his mother will let him, instead of forcing him to shovel the sidewalk. Or get a job. Or return to school. Or perform any activity that might register as respectable and valuable. Judy Tubb, high school teacher, prim, practical, and provincial, represents everything that her Bootie (her great, personal treasure, if you will) despises and desperately wants to escape from.
And it is New York where he escapes to. Home to his uncle Murray Thwaite, a straight-shooting journalist with scotch and cigarette always in hand, who arduously pursues truth, justice, and lucrative speaking engagements from the gritty heights of his Upper West Side apartment. The iconoclastic paterfamilias officiates over his wife, Annabel, a devoted, harried family law attorney desperately attempting to rescue rebellious children from a criminal bureaucracy, and Marina, the glorious, ethereal daughter, who has returned to home at thirty, jobless and loveless, to regroup and fulfill her long-overdue book contract with Vogue, an inquiry into children’s fashion through the ages, an endeavor her father thinks is decidedly light weight. In addition, there is Julius Clarke, the half-Vietnamese, Michigan-born effete and erstwhile reviewer for the Village Voice and Brown school chum of Danielle and Marina’s, who is precariously navigating his poverty and his ardor by secretly and resplendently dating his boss, David Cohen.
Bootie gains access to this coterie as if into the gilded halls of a great palace. At first he is dutifully amazed and reveres his uncle as a philosophical genius, reigning monarch of the literary realm for the last twenty years. He functions as his secretary, setting appointments and drafting correspondence, but mostly keeping track of the great stacks of papers that clutter the office, inventorying them but never disturbing their order. All of this is in exchange for a handsome salary, the proximity to his uncle’s unstinting fidelity to truth, and Murray’s offer to read his essays so as to better groom and guide his nephew’s intellectual development. What Bootie uncovers in his uncle’s office, though, shakes this promise and distorts his entire vision of New York: a secret, unfinished manuscript, hidden under lock and key and a cache of suggestive emails to a young female friend of the family.
As the novel continues, the relationships that previously seemed so trustworthy, or at least promising, begin to come undone. Julius and David’s domestic idyll is threatened by infidelity and the tedium of ordinary living. Ludovic’s efforts to launch his magazine, The Monitor, are both threatened and enhanced by his social climbing. And Danielle and Marina, whose conversations were once sensitive yet lighthearted, now search for each other’s true feelings in the awkward silences and strained condolences.
As for Bootie, he begins the deliberate dismantling of what he comes to consider his uncle’s pretensions, to disclose that the Emperor has no clothes. He crafts a response to his uncle’s manuscript claiming that the manuscript is a philosophical treatise on how to live that’s full of platitudes and faulty reasoning. Bootie plans to expose his uncle for what he really is: a boozing philanderer, subsisting on bravado and purveying balderdash. As Bootie reveals his intentions to his uncle and his essay edges closer to publication in The Monitor, Messud’s book becomes a literary mystery. Is Bootie, as Murray and Marina say, a character assassin? Or is he Ludovic’s nascent revolutionary?
In July, Bootie reveals his endeavor to his targets, and in turn, his accomplices:
The article had proven much trickier than Bootie could have imagined. He was obsessed with it: every evening for two weeks, leaving the Thwaites’ for the lengthy above-ground trip home to Pitt street, he found himself thinking through the events and exchanges of the day, wondering whether he should amend his portrait in light of a kindness, or a brusqueness. . . . He then had three copies made and, allowing himself to indulge a small vanity, had them bound in plastic covers, one red, one navy, and one black. The red one was for Marina, because he wanted her to take note of it, of him. The navy one was for his mother, because it seemed a safely sober color, an announcement of the seriousness of his endeavor. And the black one was for Murray (and for Annabel, of course, should he choose to share it), because he wanted, in all things, to be straightforward, and it was imperative that Murray should know what Bootie had been up to. Black seemed appropriately mournful: it expressed the sorrow with which he delivered his blow.
Messud adroitly balances the tension between Bootie’s personal disappointment in his uncle and his sophomoric rants, a tidy analogue for our own disapproval of cultural heroes fallen from grace. She keeps the reader wondering whether Bootie’s read of his uncle is accurate (albeit idealized and reductive) or just slightly, and ever so menacingly, unhinged. The other characters—smartly drawn, incisive, and sometimes extraordinarily eloquent (my, how brilliant life would be if we could really chat like that!)—are given equal time and don’t so much constellate around Bootie as become violently dispersed by him and his actions. When the plot collides with 9/11/2001, though, even Bootie’s tenacity crumbles.
What separates The Emperor’s Children from other novels of cultural criticism and societal intrigue, Austen included, is the inclusion of this starkly malevolent force of destruction. It’s difficult to stage 9/11 creatively without being reactive, minimizing or exaggerating the destruction or the consequences that ensue. (It’s even challenging to write about someone writing about them without sounding either crass or perpetually wounded.) Messud successfully shows the shock of the event, the bitter, burnt edges of its impossible reality, but escapes the gothic horror, which, though inherent in the tragedy itself, doesn’t necessarily serve the ends of a good book. (Or in the hands of the President, the common good—my apologies.) With sensitivity and tremendous skill, Messud lays bare how life continues even in the face of annihilation.
The novel is devastating: a patient, uncoiling of defenses that comes with forging love and foraging for connection in a city that seems to defy intimacy. Against all odds, Messud’s characters strive for intimacy, despite the familial treacheries and the perturbed, irascible City. Or simply because of them. And this is, perhaps, one of the book’s greatest endeavors. Messud delivers a story that successfully shows the disintegration of a world from the inside out. It focuses on the tragedy in the Thwaite family in a microscopic way—a cancer cell greatly magnified—without relinquishing the reality of a whole City suffering, infected by a loss that continues to divide and propagate.
And as one world ends and another begins, we’re reminded again that not all victims in Messud’s world are innocent. In fact, all of the characters confront their own moral dilemmas in ways that are familiar and disturbing. (Or perhaps disturbing precisely because they are so familiar.) What is the right path when hurt seems to be a product of every choice? Messud insists on moral messiness right up until the very end, an end that is fragmented (but deliciously satisfying) by Bootie’s indulgent indignation, Murray’s vigilant narcissism, and Danielle’s shaky but insistent return to New York, her home, though irrevocably changed. Often when global tragedy is distilled into personal loss, we’re offered a bigger, bolder view of life. So it is with Emperor.
I return again to the first chapter, my only criticism, as a means to tender my praise. I was reminded of the jitters that can plague opening nights and which can cause such bother; the first scene stutters and starts or roars and races, the engine parched or flooded with gas, until, hopefully, the actors find their pace, and the play purrs. Which is exactly what Messud’s book does. Pensive, corrosive, and consoling, affecting without being maudlin, it was a book I was always reluctant to put down, eager to pick back up. Messud transcribes our contemporary moment without pandering to our current obsession for excessive self-analysis removed from a larger context. The Emperor’s Children is a family drama, true, rich with explorations of the sense and sensibility of relationships. But it is one that doesn’t favor interiority to the exclusion of the world beyond one’s naval.
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