Friday, August 25, 2006

The Emperor's Children

So I read Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children this week in hundred-page chunks, and it's a really excellent novel, wonderfully enjoyable and intelligent and interesting (and rather like the novel that On Beauty should have been but wasn't). In contrast to Zadie Smith or Jonathan Franzen, Messud has a really lovely empathy for her characters, so that the satirical impulse is softened or mitigated by this very intelligent understanding and refusal--temperamental disinclination might be a better way of putting it--to judge. I like that a lot.

Anyway, this book's being reviewed all over the place, I won't bother to link except to this very interesting interview with Michelle Huneven in LA Weekly. And here's a paragraph of prose that shows Messud at her very best (this character is the one we feel closest too, I think--but I must say that the character of Marina Thwaite is extraordinarily well-drawn, and the reactions of those around her to her combination of privilege and annoyingness amazingly true to things I have seen myself), thirty-year-old Danielle Minkoff is at home in her apartment just after her secret lover (her best friend Marina's father, eminent journalist Murray Thwaite) has gone:

When he had left, Danielle lay on her bed, which smelled of them and faintly, too, of the gin-and-tonic cologne, and she thought first of Marina, and of what would have to be kept from her now. Danielle had never before had a secret that she couldn't confide in anyone, but this, she knew, was such a secret. She couldn't tell Randy, even, who so wanted her daughter to find love. If that was what she had found. She held in her mind two disparate realities: one was the fierce tenderness she felt for this disintegrating giant, the joy at his small kindnesses and vulnerabilities, the sense--overwhelming and surely false, even she could see--that she could anticipate all of them, that, like a blind person, she had developed some extra sense, where he was concerned, and could practically finish his sentences. The other was a certainty of wrong, a moral repugnance. This she experienced abstractly, with her mind; it was, consequently, the weaker of the two realities. She was fascinated by the internal conflict, or by the notion of it, because in truth, she didn't really contemplate renouncing him. The disgust was an idea, something she knew she ought to conjure, the way an autistic child can learn to smile at his mother to show happiness. Her bones, her flesh, the tickle of her scalp and the pads of her fingertips all spoke without prompting a chorus of desire. Pressed to his chest she'd felt safe and exhilarated at once, as if swept by a great internal breeze; and there seemed little point telling herself that this was immoral. Marina--or even Annabel--didn't come into it. This in the space of a week or two. She'd become a person she would never have anticipated being.

Four slightly irrelevant observations/criticisms:

1. My friend M. aptly observed that it is a pity Messud's three college friends are said to have gone to Brown, since they are clearly Yale types! (The narcissism of small differences. But it creates a minor implausibility.)

2. The character of Bootie doesn't work for me. This type is a particular one that I feel I know fairly well, the clever and idealistic and unappealing and frankly rather frightening teenage male misfit, and I don't think he's nearly as plausibly characterized as the book's other major figures. This is the novel's only significant flaw.

3. The description of the death of the cat called the Pope is uncannily good, and was for me the one part of the book where I suddenly felt like I was in my world, I knew exactly this cat and he lived in a similarly spacious Morningside Heights apartment and his demise was late and awful. Oh, that poor Hobbes! He was an Abyssinian of very strong personality and small size, skin and bone (those vertebrae!) by the time I knew him, and Messud's description of the Pope brought him painfully strongly to mind. RIP Hobbes.

4. The strangest thing for me reading this book is that although on the face of it it's about a world awfully much like the one I live in, I find it absolutely alien and estranging. If I experienced life in the way these characters seem to I would be in absolute despair! It is utterly off-putting. I was reminded of why I do not feel like I'm really an Upper West Side-type person, really my spiritual home is somewhere within walking distance of the Houston Street 1 station, this novel's world is that Hannah and Her Sisters Woody Allenesque world of privilege and spacious Upper West Side apartments and it is really unsavory.

Strangely the book I've just read that felt much more exactly like the world I live in, and want to live in, was Edward P. Jones's All Aunt Hagar's Children. (I won't say more now, my review is coming out shortly & I'll link when it's up, but Jones is in my opinion one of the couple great fiction-writing geniuses of our time. So I'm not knocking Messud, just saying that her writing doesn't give me the sense of great spiritual and intellectual openness that I get from Jones.)


  1. I'd like to read both the Messud and the Jones -- they both sound great. I read this amazing review of Jones's book in -- Harpers? -- somewhere, and it was totally inspiring.

  2. You know, I often feel like you and I have at once intense similarities and intense differences, and you may have just nailed it, because I feel hopelessly at home on the Upper West Side (at least, I did from about 1970, when I became aware, till the most recent of yuppie Bugaboo infestations), while I have always felt like I SHOULD feel at home in the Lower East Side, especially in the 80s, when various friends were living in squats and the like with much cooler boys than I ever dated--OK, that's not true, I dated some cool boys, they just always did have homes--but I always felt better once I got on the 1 heading uptown...

  3. Thanks for this clear breakdown (and for the blog in general). I'll definitely refer back it when Messud's book finally arrives from Amazon.