Fools: Claire Messud’s “The Emperor’s Children”

Messud, Claire (2007), The Emperor’s Children, Vintage
ISBN 978-0-307-27666-7

In 2007 Susan Faludi published her most recent collection of essays, The Terror Dream, focusing on the effect that 9/11 had on feminism. The thesis she was putting forward in that book was that 9/11 set feminism back whole decades by making the nation revert back to more traditional patterns of thought. The Emperor’s Children, Claire Messud’s third novel, published in 2006, ultimately explores a similar issue, although most of the book is over by the time the Twin Towers are hit by a pair of kidnapped planes. Faludi focuses upon the way that post 9/11 marketing effected these changes, how people and the mechanisms that people put into motion hurt whatever progress was achieved during the past decades by propagating “the consolations of a domestic idyll”.

Faludi looks upon the cultural aftermath of 9/11 more than upon what preceded it, which accounts for a few blind spots in her thinking and constitutes the major structural difference to Messud’s novel, which allows little room for the aftermath. Instead, it provides a masterful portrait of what a segment of society looked like in 2001, what it actually was that was supposed to have changed. And Messud does not care for broad sociological assessments, she directs her gaze at the individual level. The results are moving, striking and immensely readable. Not particularly insightful or enlightening, but then the novel does not, I think, attempt to be either.

The Emperor’s Children‘s strengths and weaknesses are rooted in the same quality of the book, which is its focus on characters. The book is spun around a handful of men and women in New York, all of whom, in one way or another, are part of the intelligentsia. Central in the tangled web of relationships is the Thwaite family. The head of that family is Murray Thwaite, a left-wing journalism legend who has made a name for himself as well as quite a large amount of money in all the years Thwaite spent publishing and teaching. His most recent collection of essays having been well received, he is now planning his future and deciding what to do with what he considers his opus magnum, “How To Live”, which, as a project, reminded this reader of Grady Tripp’s 2000 plus page novel (in Chabon’s Wonder Boys). The major similarity is that both books seem to have no restraints and no direction, they just accumulate pages and ideas and grow steadily.

Another unpublished book is the one that Marina Thwaite, Murray’s middle-aged daughter, has promised her editor to finish. In contrast to her father, her problem is not too many pages but too little. Although she has already done all her research, she cannot make herself start work on this book that explores the interrelationship between clothes and, basically, the conditio humana. Marina, like her father, is a well-drawn character, in the sense of being drawn in great and telling detail but, like all the characters in the book, ultimately, she remains a caricature: a former model and still endowed with stunning looks, she is not as smart as many of her friends, blinded by her beauty and charm, think. Messud makes this clear by, cruelly, providing us with a piece from Marina’s book later on. Her most defining trait, however, is the stupendous extent to which she’s self-absorbed, arrogant and egocentric. She is driven by a vague desire to be special, mostly because she is her father’s, to wit, the Emperor’s daughter.

The Thwaite household, and the father-daughter relationship, although not taking up the biggest part of the novel, which accords each of its five main characters roughly the same space, is central to the novel’s construction. All the plot strands intersect now and then in Thwaite’s house, and the two Thwaite family members often act as catalysts for the story. Additionally, the father-daughter relationship provides a foil to look at the smallest social unit, the family, in a way that evokes mythical stories told and retold through the ages. Although the novel appears to have been written in an upper-class social realism, Jamesian, one is almost tempted to call it, the fact that its characters are almost never anything else but caricatures points into a different direction. Every character appears to be a conglomerate of other literary characters and traditions, reaching up into contemporary popular culture. But, like Murray and Marina, where a mythic substructure is merely suggested, the other references, too, are rather low-key.

One of the few direct and strong reference, and possibly the most important one of all, is found in the description of an overweight college dropout called Frederick Tubbs, nicknamed Bootie. Bootie Tubbs is an autodidact who appears to be the spitting image of the Toole’s character Ignatius J. Reilly from his masterful debut novel A Confederacy of Dunces (the surname of a major supporting character in both books is Minkoff, another clue). Ignatius is as grandiose as he is rotund; he is possessed of an impeccable literary taste (as far as the classics are concerned) which is balanced by atrocious taste in other things, not least of which is fashion. Bootie Tubbs, too, neglects his appearance in favor of what he sees as his self-education, spurned by Emerson’s philosophy (In Messud’s novel, Emerson takes the role that Boethius has in Toole’s). The reader of both novels quickly suspects that both Ignatius and Tubbs, respectively, are not as smart, insightful and well-read as they may think, both are thoroughly unlikeable and loveable characters at the same time. Tubbs, more or less accidentally, changes everyone he touches, on a personal level. This is interesting, since Tubbs defines himself on the basis of his intellectual appetite, but is shown to be of no consequence in this regard. Here’s the first significance of the Toole reference: Ignatius, who considers himself a thoroughly cerebral creature, is constantly shown up by, for lack of better words, life, which happens to all of the five major characters in The Emperor’s Children, as well. And we see how bodily reality is resistant to vapid and fashionable theorizing. When one among their number is grievously wounded and scarred for life, he insists upon the autonomy of his experience, he resists his friends’ making sense of it in the terms of their way of reading the world.

If I haven’t mentioned yet what actually happens, it’s because it’s not very important. The usual, so to say. One woman marries the man she loves, another is engaged in an illicit tryst. We see some people’s fortunes rise, some fall; we see some writers being published, others not. These things do not seem to actually happen; on the contrary, Messud appears to be constantly quoting or paraphrasing traditional plots, deriving her effects from similarities and contrasts with her predecessors. But here’s where 9/11 steps up to the plate. It serves, like the scar, as a corrective to the life of the mind that the characters have been leading so far, which is not necessarily a good thing. We see a return of most characters to the fold, we hear that Murray Thwaite’s empty, but grandiloquent philosophy that he has been sketching in that mysterious manuscript, “How To Live” is probably going to succeed, and that a critical newspaper will not be launched in the foreseeable time.

A Confederacy of Dunces is titled after an epigraph by Jonathan Swift, “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” and truly, throughout that book, Ignatius is convinced that he is the victim of such a confederacy. In Messud’s book, we are, at first, led to believe that everybody is such a dunce, until everything crumbles like the Twin Towers, and we see the dunces emerge victoriously. It’s Murray and his daughter. That image, of the powerful head of the family rising above it all, and his daughter, returned, in a way, to him, rising, too, is an indictment of the state of a society at least as harsh as Faludi’s, but delivered in a much softer voice. Murray is the Emperor in more ways than one; the other way that the term is used is in the sense of the “The Emperor has no clothes” expression. This novel shows how a patriarchal society works, how it supports intellectual laziness, how its structured by a general sense of entitlement that’s strongest the closer one gets to the center.

Messud’s novel is dominated by light banter, and she’s an incredible prose writer. However, she amasses so many details, builds such complex, soapish plots, that the power of her ideas is somewhat lost now and then. It is still a very good novel, but digging through a huge pile of well-written but empty, because ultimately self-referential, sentences, can be taxing at times. Some readers may find the effort not worth it.

2 thoughts on “Fools: Claire Messud’s “The Emperor’s Children”

  1. Pingback: Anonymous

  2. Pingback: “Emperor’s Children”: The Movie « shigekuni.

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