Monday, June 18, 2007

Wishing the Emperor would put his clothes back on ...

I was really looking forward to The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud, a tale of upscale New Yorkers pre- and post-911 which spans the months of March 2001 to November 2001.

The Emperor's children are clearly those affluent, liberal, creative and somewhat aimless upper middle class young New Yorkers who inhabit a sort of fantasy pre-911 New York city.

They are producers of documentary films, aspiring writers and intellectuals, magazine editors and fashionably "kept" men. They fumble in their relationships and careers, lose confidence, jump start creative initiatives, unsure of who they are or what they want.

Danielle Minkoff, the documentary film producer, filled with the perpetual underconfidence of an ethnic outsider who struggles to create films of substance. Julius Clarke, sexually adventurous, frivolous, who finally meets the handsome affluent man of his dreams, only to attempt to sabotage the relationship with tawdry sexual encounters. Frederick, a small town boy, intelligent and rootless, who seeks the mentorship of his famous uncle Murray Thwaite, a celebrity, pundit and possible intellectual fraud. Ludovic Seeley, a transplanted Australian, pretentious and arrogant with enough Oedipal rage directed at Murray Thwaite to slay a hundred father/idols. And finally, Marina Thwaite, a beautiful, slightly shallow, possibly talented writer who is writing the improbable The Emperor's Children's Clothes, a history of children's clothing, much to her father's disdain and displeasure.

The characters seem to be a series of not particularly interesting cliches: the insecure Jewish girl; the flamboyant queen; the small town, ambitious nerd; the lovely underconfident WASP; the aggressive outsider set on conquering New York that intrudes upon their world. And there is the self absorbed, pompous "emperor" Murray Thwaite around which all of them revolve like a series of small planets around the sun, and whom Frederick and Ludovic seek to topple from his pedestal for their own private reasons.

The book charts their various enterprises from March to November 2001 and I must say that for almost 300 pages it does hold a sort of certain Seinfeldian sense of being "a show about nothing". What they accomplish during the course of the novel is minimal.

It's not that Messud is not a literate or intelligent writer but for all my initial avid interest in the book, I simply fail to care for, or believe in, the characters. And the magnitude of 911 upon their lives feels false and manufactured.

After pages and pages of "nothingness" characters oddly act against type: Julius' partner David Cohen, an uptight, barely out of the closet financial manager, attacks Julius over an infidelity; sensible, sweet Danielle falls in love with best friend Marina's father Murray; Frederick (also known as Bootie) betrays his revered uncle Murray with a searing Oedipal-fueled attack that he hopes will be published by that other destroyer of idols Ludovic Seeley. These events all lead up to September 11th which is touched on only briefly ... and through the prism of these mostly privileged lives who claim to be touched, even scarred, by the atrocities of the day, but display little of this momentous event in the workings of their everyday lives.

How flat the post 911 world is ... someone has a breakdown of sorts (it is unclear why - because she viewed the carnage from a distance? because her lover abandons her on the day of 911? because she realizes that the relationship is shallow and futile?) and is whisked away from NYC by a parent; another character's marriage is in jeopardy; a third departs Manhattan provoking the mistaken speculation by his family that he is collateral damage in the 911 attacks; an errant husband returns to his spouse who may, or may not suspect his affair but is only relieved to see him home on September 11th, no questions asked.

But I buy none of it ... the breakdown, the partner that suddenly turns surly and rude to his spouse because 911 has scuttered his dreams of conquering the New York media world, the rapid departure of another character to Miami to start anew. It all feels false and ... utterly unmoving.

Even the pretentious literary chapter titles (Musil's "A Man Without Qualities', Dostoyevsky's "Notes from the Underground" and such, which I suspect were inserted to entertain), scream "I am literate!" and grate upon the reader. The on-going struggle that a few of the main characters exhibit regarding whether they are persons like Pierre or Natasha, the main characters of Tolstoy's War and Peace, feel shallow and do not elucidate the characters for me.

Now, I look forward with pleasure to my "next" 911 book, Falling Man, by Don DeLillo.

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