It’s a Small Literary World
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
When Marina Thwaite, one of the undirected 30-somethings at the center of Claire Messud’s new novel, “The Emperor’s Children” (Knopf, 448 pages, $25), finally finishes the book that she’s been writing for seven years, she gives a copy of the manuscript to her father, Murray, an eminent journalist through whose connections she got the book deal in the first place. Her book, titled “The Emperor’s Children Have No Clothes,” is about children’s fashions and how they reflect our cultural mores. Murray postpones reading it, because he thinks that no matter how erudite or elegantly written, his daughter’s work can’t possibly transcend the superficiality of its subject.
It’s a slight exaggeration, but not a total one, to say that this is also the feeling of the reader of “The Emperor’s Children.” An extremely talented and poised writer, Ms. Messud in her previous novels has illuminated lives as remote from her readers’ experiences as those of a French-Algerian teenager in the south of France and an aging Ukrainian housekeeper in Toronto. In “The Emperor’s Children,” by contrast, she sets her story in New York, among the members of the media elite. It’s a world of artifice, superficiality, and status symbols — whether an apartment on Central Park West or a byline in the New York Review of Books. And Ms. Messud neither wholly satirizes the denizens of this world, nor — though I think she intends to — does she penetrate their artifice to find much of interest beneath it. As a result, the book itself remains largely superficial: an anthropological examination of the trappings and markers of this world.
An interesting comment on at least the publisher’s instinct of why readers would be drawn to the novel (which is currently a best seller) is provided by the cover: a photograph of the Beresford on Central Park West, where perhaps we are supposed to imagine the Thwaites as living, under a menacing sky. The image has the nice effect of simultaneously proclaiming the novel’s serious intentions — after all, there is danger in store, in the form of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, for even these privileged few — while also playing on the aspirational quality of comedies of manners about New York’s upper class.
The trio of characters at the novel’s center are Marina and her two close friends from Brown: Julius Clarke, gay and half-Asian, who has made the beginnings of a name for himself publishing several “devastating but elegant” book reviews in the Village Voice, and Danielle Minkoff, a documentary filmmaker. Into their world come two intruders: Ludovic Seeley, a young publishing star in Australia, hoping to make a splash in New York with a idol-toppling magazine called the Monitor, and Frederick “Bootie” Tubb, Marina’s cousin from upstate, who is embarking on a course of self-education and wants to apprentice himself to Murray.
These figures and other events upset the balance in the central trio’s friendship. Marina falls for Ludovoc Seeley, and they are quickly engaged. Danielle finds herself in an affair with Marina’s father, Murray. Bootie, whom Murray has taken on as his secretary, catches the scent of this relationship and also discovers the secret manuscript of his uncle’s new book — a discourse on “how to live” that Murray hopes will be his greatest work. Bootie is disgusted by the possible affair and finds the manuscript pompous and empty. Having been invited by Marina, now the Monitor’s culture editor, to write a piece on spec, Bootie composes an essay unmasking his childhood hero.
Because the novel alternates among these characters’ points of view — plus a chapter in the voice of the Thwaites’ housekeeper, inserted, it seems, simply to cement our sense of Murray’s arrogance and selfishness –– the reader doesn’t get a deep sense of almost anyone. The one exception is Danielle. She is both insider and outsider: from the Midwest rather than New York; best friends with Marina but both envious of her beauty and contemptuous of her entitlement and lack of focus. As her clandestine relationship with Murray develops, Danielle becomes privy, like God or the author, to all of the characters’ interactions.Walking in Union Square, Marina tells Danielle about her father’s response to Bootie’s essay, while, in her head, Danielle replays her own discussion with Murray:
Danielle couldn’t repeat any of this to Marina, pacing the dappled, tree-draped circuit near the farmers’ market; but she wanted to shout that she understood, she felt she saw them all, as if she were the audience and they the players upon the stage, this peculiar sense of clear vision that she’d had since things with Murray began, that her world unfurled before her in illuminated palimpsest…
Although Danielle develops as a complex character, there is a major obstacle to our understanding her: So much narrative energy is spent convincing us that Murray is a fraud, or at least, not very nice, that it’s hard to believe that Danielle can fall in love with him, as she does. In a more successful novel, Murray’s faults might make him human and sympathetic. Here, he remains a cartoon. Similarly, Marina and Julius, in their lack of self-insight, are occasionally poignant, but mostly frustrating.
Novelists are rewarded for writing what publicists call “big books” with “broad palettes,” which, in practice, seems to mean novels with lots of characters, most of whom live in a world very similar to the one the book’s intended readers inhabit, or would like to. Of course, we read for a variety of reasons: both to increase our understanding of lives different from ours, and for flashes of recognition of our own experience or thoughts. But when a novel is only a mirror of our own small world –– and, specifically, of those aspects of it that are most superficial –– no matter how gracefully written it is, it’s a fundamentally unsatisfying read.