Plenitude and Privilege
"Culture follows money," F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote. Claire Messud's novel, The Emperor's Children traces the intersecting lives of three friends who met as students at an Ivy League university, their relationships and careers as they negotiate the heady upper reaches of New York society, and the irrevocable changes wrought by the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. They are altered as well by Frederick "Bootie" Tubb, Murray's nephew, who insinuates himself into their rarefied sphere, a college dropout and autodidact persuaded of his own genius. It is a novel of manners in the Wharton and James mode, but the title implies both privilege, royal lineage, and, after the adage, "The emperor has no clothes," an unmasking of illusions.
The novel opens at a posh party in Australia, where Danielle, a TV producer, meets Ludovic Seeley, a Rupert Murdoch-like media magnate, and closes on a note of ambiguity and equivocation as, I think, any post-9/11 novel should. The other two friends are Marina, aspiring writer-daughter of celebrated leftist journalist Murray Thwaite, a beauty perenially in his shadow, and Julius, a gay Eurasian freelance critic desperately on the make.
The author writes a knowing, incisive, satirical prose about the machinations and transgressions of her thirtysomething characters. She has much to say about hypocrisy, Machiavellian ambition, the linkage of desire and need, of lust and family. The climactic scenes of a city in chaos have a cinematic sweep to them.
In fact the novel's climax turns heavily on the events of 9/11, which for a moment "democratized" our city and nation, even the globe, in the electronic interconnectedness of tragedy. Thus, it's striking and somewhat disappointing to this reader, that Messud's novel doesn't have a more Dickensian scope in its depiction of that terrible day and its aftermath. With the exception of scenes set in Brooklyn's Fort Greene neighborhood and the plot strand of lawyer Annabel Thwaite's young black client, the socially marginal and the underclass are largely expunged from the book. Messud's representation of a money-driven celebrity culture in which surface appearance is all is surely accurate, but it's dismaying to see it nonetheless.
The novel also lacks the recognition of the disastrous consequences of class and social aspiration that one sees in Lily Bart's fall from grace in Edith Wharton's novel The House of Mirth, and Henry James' profound sense of human evil (the terrorists in Messud's book are an unknowable abstraction).
In addition, because The Emperor's Children is a novel of manners, there has to be some correspondence to an actual social world. Does a real-life figure comparable to Murray Thwaite exist? Noam Chomsky, a professor of linguistics at MIT and ferocious critic of U.S. foreign policy, may come closest. Of course Thwaite is meant to be a figure of hypocrisy, so it's possible that the author is suggesting that mendacity isn't restricted to any ideology. But it could be argued that Seely, in his devious Napoleonic splendor and his megalomaniacal desire to set the social agenda, is a more ominous figure.
One last reservation: the characters lack any true sense of mortality (their own and others) as they approach their thirtieth year. They are insulated by their plenitude and privilege. Surely most Americans are not wholly ignorant of death by that age. Messud intends to prefigure the sobering effects of 9/11 upon them, but nevertheless their naivete astonishes me, and their preoccupation with the superficial disallows the main characters, even Danielle, arguably the most sympathetic of the three, from having much of an interior life.
"The Emperor's Children is a tour de force that brings to life a city, a generation," says the jacket description, "and the way we live in this moment. The following is from a August 29, 2007 New York Times editorial entitled "A Sobering Census Report: Americans' Meager Income Gains": "The median household income last year was still about $1,000 less than in 2000, before the onset of the last recession. In 2006, 36.5 million Americans were living in poverty--5 million more than six years before, when the poverty rate fell to 11.3 percent.
It seems a fair question to ask to whom the "we" refers in the novel's dust jacket.