There's a certain kind of Victorian society novel that always makes me feel like an unreconstructed Communist. Yes, I get swept up in the story, plow through the pages like potato chips. But as I do, I am waging a small, private, fearsome debate with the consumptive heroine (and her creator, and, by extension, her creator's whole social world). Why should I treat her petty aspirations with the same regard I hold for, say, those of Othello? Heroes should die or kill for love—not for pride or, worse, a place card. Thus a book like The Emperor's Children, Claire Messud's decidedly bourgeois and deliciously yarny novel, trumps a reader like me. It's a drawing-room drama in which Messud deviously transposes all of the tawdry ambitions of Victorian society to the Upper West Side, and lo and behold, the parlor starts to look bitterly familiar. The tragic flaws of its inhabitants strike uncomfortably close to home: writers who are faking it, critics dithering between lofty discernment and cocktail parties, documentary filmmakers who ruefully embrace the compromises (making infomercials) associated with funding their real projects, enduringly passionate legal rights advocates who are overtaxed and can't sleep through the night, magazine editors with Napoleon complexes. Throw in a cleverly named housecat on life support, and Messud's milieu is indistinguishable from a holiday potluck for The Nation.
This is New York intelligentsia: an incidental gathering of fauna, beset by privilege and neurosis, grappling with a relativistic social code that provides for happiness and tragedy in the most abstruse, often acid, ways.
The story, such as it is, follows suit. Here we have what is essentially the attenuated tidal movement of a small but robust ensemble. Some rise, some fall, the waters get rough, and then everyone comes back to the surface, more or less where they started—minus a tentacle, perhaps slightly ravaged in the gills, or, simply, larger for having swallowed so much water. A middle-aged literary celebrity, Murray Thwaithe, steps out on his wife, Annabel, with Danielle, his daughter's best friend. Danielle falls in love, while Murray is only titillated and distracted. The long-suffering Annabel continues to bear up, sinking her affective energies instead into rehabilitating a wayward street thug bound to disappoint her—he seems, in fact, as immune to being helped as her husband is immured from a sense of consequences. Meanwhile, the couple's bright and beautiful thirty-year-old daughter, Marina—once a promising It Girl with a tony pop-history/culture studies book proposal (The Emperor's Children Have No Clothes, about children's fashion through the ages) under her belt—is stagnating. She's single, blocked, directionless, and living at home, until Danielle introduces her to a dashing, somewhat sociopathic Australian editor newly arrived in the city to start a magazine he characterizes as revolutionary but in fact sounds a lot like Tina Brown's short-lived Talk. Ludovic Seely, who initially piqued Danielle's romantic interest when she met him in Sydney while researching an ill-fated, well-intentioned documentary about the aborigines, is irresistibly drawn to Marina—particularly the way she lives in the shadow of her successful middlebrow father (whom Ludovic resents). He offers her a job, seduces her, kick-starts her stalled book project, and steadily begins hacking away at her emotional dependency on her dad.
Then, Murray's young nephew, Bootie, freshly dropped out of college and determined to make a mentor out of his famous relative, arrives on the Thwaites' Central Park West doorstep. Murray takes him on as his assistant, handing over the keys to his office sanctum—a privilege that Bootie promptly abuses. Rifling through the deep piles, Bootie discovers Murray's secret, partially finished memoir—fruit of ten years of tentative labor and intellectual revelation—and proceeds to write about it, criticizing it harshly and then embellishing his "tell-all" with an indelicate character assassination. Bootie delivers the essay to Marina, for possible publication in Ludovic's magazine, courteously making an extra copy for Murray. And this is where things start to unravel.
Murray, the putative emperor, is a wonderfully apt vortex for this cast of characters. A neurotic public intellectual, possibly also a stealth mediocrity, he clings to his position as tightly as to his persona—avuncular, bombastic, bumbling, passionate, ambivalent. He's a foil to each member of the ensemble that spins around him: His son-in-law wants to piss farther, his devoted wife uses her selflessness to reflect his faults and subdue his philandering, his fatherless nephew looks to him for guidance and as an outlet for his oedipal crisis, his talented but lazy daughter lets him overshadow her, and his mistress can only fall in love with him because he's unattainable.
This tightly knit web—a kind of mini-panorama of New York society—is at the heart of Messud's rather ingenious craft. The characters are all extraordinarily drawn—the minutiae of everyone's unhappiness (manifested often through their relationship with Murray) rings true. But Messud's project is far more elaborate than simple verisimilitude. Once the personalities insinuate themselves into the realm of the familiar—at times, off-puttingly familiar—they then subtly venture into the staginess that certifies a satire: dramatic speeches, fisticuffs, lackadaisical suicide attempts. All of this serves Messud's barbed vision of a social class whose sense of self-importance is misplaced.
Satire is a new direction for Messud, whose past novels, When the World Was Steady and The Last Life, and two novellas compiled under the title The Hunters were similarly character-driven and lushly, perhaps ponderously, neurotic. But here she moves beyond the tenor of the literary novel and strikes gold. Stepping elegantly through the varieties of irony, Messud lifts superficially superficial characters out of the trivial; she endows them with tender complexity and then rips the carpet out from under their poor feet.
The centerpiece of the story is the battle between Murray and the young-Werther-like Bootie. Too smart for college, too sensitive for reality, Bootie is "canny, and proud," according to Danielle, holding "the world to impossible standards." With his copy of The Man Without Qualities tucked into a plastic deli bag, he's the poetic engineer of the lot, identifying and targeting for destruction his foil and then, with a sleight of hand typically reserved for an author (rather than her characters), staging his own death.
Bootie's betrayal of Murray—the critical exposť—is the novel's false climax. The seemingly tranquil world of book writing, lovemaking, and magazine publishing erupts when Bootie emerges as the lone creature in the kingdom of New York marginal enough to dare yanking at the emperor's sparkling robe. And the eminent writer strikes back with all the neurotic ferocity of a caged, unwashed, vainglorious beast: "To your readers," Bootie says to Murray, "the manuscript is very precious. Even more precious because it's not published. I'm just telling people what it is."
"No, young man. You're shitting on me from a great height. Which, you don't seem to understand, I can immediately put a stop to. A wave of my hand, and you simply cease to exist."
"So I'm fired?"
"It means simply this: that as far as I'm concerned, and, with me, the thinking portion of this city, and by extension, of this nation, you will simply cease to exist."
In a world governed by illusion, man protects his facade with a vengeance. All the young pupil has done is shake the master's staid, defensive vision of himself. Yet this crime is punishable, apparently, by obsolescence. Emotions run high, and the stakes are all so terribly dishy and . . . domestic.
The Emperor's Children wouldn't be such a pitch-perfect, utterly irresistible satire if anything of consequence really hung in the balance. Instead these poor characters fight tooth and nail for empty notoriety, sex and/or power couplings, cushy jobs, a mention in the Times (either in the style section or the book review), and the launch of a magazine the world would be just as healthy without. Tensions escalate between Marina and her father after he harshly criticizes her manuscript. "I don't think I'm Flaubert, here, or, I don't know, Dr. Spock or Gloria Steinem or whatever," the daughter rails, ticking off her major influences like a petulant MFA student, "making groundbreaking pronouncements. But he does. . . . Live decently. Don't lose your temper. Embrace Beauty and Truth. Above all, Truth. Blah blah blah. Please. He's offering up tired maxims as if they were original gems. Just because he imagines he's a thinker doesn't mean he can suddenly turn into one. . . ." Ludo, in his role as anti-intellectual literary provocateur, "believes in debunking. He always says—and he's so right—that it's a nobler thing to do to write a good book about, say, cheese—a useful, plain-speaking guide to cheese—than another crappy novel."
Ironically, the deus ex machina—September 11—that trips the lot of them, revealing them naked in their tragic, bourgie flaws, is a tremendous nonsatirical example of man actually striving for (and obtaining) a higher power—taking on God's task of really making people cease to exist.
The tidal pool is washed over and then everything begins to fall neatly back into place. Murray's career gets a boost as he assumes a role as the neoliberals' most vocal pundit, Bootie sinks back into anonymity (erasing himself), Danielle licks her wounds on a Miami beach, and Marina waits to see where the man in her life will take her next. Perfectly New York: The status quo is maintained. There is a costume change, and the emperor's children bob back to the surface. OK, so the tragic flaw is still pride, and the emperor is unscathed. The ambitions may be petty, but Messud's perspective on them is so calibrated and, again, so achingly real that I don't feel that unbearable urge to quibble over the integrity of social climbing. Instead, I can sit back and watch Messud, who, in her backhanded way, takes care of all that, and does so with far more style and zeal.
Minna Proctor is the author of Do You Hear What I Hear? An Unreligious Writer Investigates Religious Calling (Penguin, 2006).