Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.

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Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Emperor's Children

I was prepared to dislike this book, perhaps because of its echt-New Yorkiness: New York being the center of the universe, the universe outside New York being too pathetic to contemplate. But once into the book, I realized that while the characters may feel this way, their creator, author Claire Messud, does not.

Therein lies one the book's finest traits: Messud's gift for characterization. While Marina Thwaite, her parents Murray and Annabel, and their assorted satellites are not wholly loveable, nor are they--save Ludovic Seeley--completely despicable. You even come to like them, despite their pronounced flaws.

Well, maybe not Murray Thwaite, a eminent journalist whose massive ego holds Marina, Annabel, and Marina's best friend Danielle Minkoff in heady sway. Accustomed to his high position, certain of his worthiness, Murray is a monster, a taker, a liar and a charmer. Enter Ludovic Seeley, a young Australian, come to New York City to start the Monitor, a magazine looking to debunk accepted truths, particularly those uttered or written by Murray Thwaite. Introduced to Danielle, Ludovic worms himself into the family Thwaite via Marina's affections.

Ludo is interested in revolution in the most "po-mo" sense--that is, postmodernist. He urges frankness at all costs:

"That's what I hold against Thwaite--he's a sentimentalist. There's nothing clear-eyed about his analyses...And people buy them because they subscribe to some antiquated notion that a passionate reporter is more valuable than a dispassionate one. Bollocks....What could be rarer, more precious, more compelling than unmasking these hacks for what they are?" (111)

His goal: to prove the Emperor has no clothes. His unlikely ally in this enterprise is Frederick "Bootie" Tubb, Murray's nephew, a fat college droupout who flees Watertown and his overbearing mother, Murray's sister Judy, appearing on the Thwaite's finely appointed doorstep. Murray, ever the generous uncle, hires Bootie in a secretarial capacity.

We are ready to dislike Bootie, or at least be annoyed by his youthful arrogance, his slovenliness, his social clumsiness. But as the novel progresses, showing everyone to be hopelessly self-involved and, in some cases, amazingly immature, we come to admire Bootie's tenacity. He knows he's a fat slob, a bright boy with little to offer. He realizes he must better himself, and is willing to risk a great deal in the effort. Not so Danielle or Marina, or their college friend Julius, a talented writer who trades on his sexual prowess until events conspire to halt him.

Sepetember 11th happens in this book, and while everything has been said, seen, and written about that day, Messud's careful setup of the characters and their lives beforehand render the devastation newly stark without devolving into Ludo's despised sentimentalism.

Messud's eye for domestic detail lends heft : Murray and Annabel's sumptuous apartment, overlooking Central Park, features a sisal rug that "glows as if gilded" (39) from the frosted sconce lighting. A sideboard is "miraculously...suspended or cantilevered in such a way that it had no legs.." (39) There rooms are large, culminating in Murray's study, a sanctum of papers and piles possible only for the wealthiest of New Yorkers. Food indicates status: Danielle, at lunch with awful Ludovic, eats poussin. Murray drinks Lagavulin; cavair blinis are consumed at a wedding. This in contrast to Bootie's atrocious lodgings, a dark, hot, roach-ridden studio barren of furnishings and Judy's crumbling home and frozen dinners.

One wonders how a book like this will hold up; it is so indicative of its era. Will we look back at thirtyish people, still adrift post-college, and marvel? Smile, amused at our innocence? Will 9/11's horror fade in the face of new atrocities? Will sconce lighting and poussin strike us the way the '80's do now--scoffworthy? Or will we find deeper truths beneath the careful notations of this shallow milieu?

Claire Messud: The Emperor's Children. New York: Knopf, 2006.

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