The Emperor's Children
With only three published books, Claire Messud has established a reputation as one of the more important rising writers in English. Twice a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, Messud is interested in the life where nothing has proceeded according to plan. In each of her two earlier novels (When the World Was Steady, 1994, and The Last Life, 1999) as well as the novellas collected in The Hunters (2000), Messud tells the stories of characters whose lives are awash in disappointment, who feel keenly their lack of fulfillment. Her novel The Emperor’s Children deals with a battery of characters whose lives do not seem to reach accord with their ambitions and their pictures of themselves. The novel is in some ways also a narrative about September 11, 2001. Messud is too subtle a writer to make this primarily a story about the national tragedy, however, instead using it as both catalyst and epilogue to the intertwined narratives of her cast of characters.
The novel is loosely focused on three friends, comrades since their college days at Brown, who have collectively crossed the threshold of thirty years of age, the American turning point. First is Marina Thwaite, the daughter of a respected and well-known cultural critic and journalist, Murray Thwaite. Marina signed a book contract years earlier for a cultural critique of children’s fashions but has failed to complete (or even write) the book; instead, she keeps pushing her deadline back time after time. The second friend is Danielle Minkoff, a news program and documentary producer for television who keeps missing the opportunity to develop the next big story; she has never had a serious relationship. The third member of their coterie is their gay friend Julius Clarke, a freelance critic and dilettante who supports himself through “temping” and secretarial work. Each of the three feels that she or he is destined to make a difference or fated to accomplish something special; yet, none of the three has made good on the promise. Marina lives with her parents and fails to work; Julius keeps himself barely afloat with his office jobs and skips from affair to affair; Danielle, the most successful and emancipated of the three, has been unable to produce the program that will make her career. Their senses of themselves seem to be summed up by Marina’s declaration to Danielle: “I can’t see just taking any dumb thing because it’s somehow ’good for me’ to have a job. I’ve got to believe, I mean, I know that I’m more serious than that.”
The title of Marina’s unfinished book is The Emperor’s Children Have No Clothes. The “emperor” who furnishes the totem at the center of the novel is Marina’s father, an aging critic and cultural spokesperson who made his reputation during the heady revolutionary days of the 1960’s. Thwaite is a famous intellectual, widely published and successful, an icon of cultural presence whose very eminence seems out of the grasp of the next generation. Like the members of the younger generation, however, Murray is also still filled with the need to be relevant, to accomplish even grander ambitions; he is secretly working on a magnum opus that tries to answer the most human question of them all: how to live.
The circle of the three friends and their revolution around Marina’s lofty father, however, are disturbed by the intrusion of three different men. Ludovic Seeley is a magazine editor of a soon-to-launch periodical and a self-styled iconoclast from Australia who is eager to tear down such cultural icons as Murray in order to promote himself. Danielle introduces Seeley to Marina; neither woman realizes that Danielle is attracted to Seeley, but before long the daughter of the icon and the man who would destroy his image are involved and soon engaged to be married.
Also entering the scene is Murray’s nephew Frederick “Bootie” Tubb, a college dropout and self-instructing intellectual in training who idolizes Murray and wishes to emulate him. Bootie reads Emerson, considers the kind of thinking he was required to do in college too facile and obvious, and sees in Murray a model for his future self. Perhaps seeing something of his own past in Bootie’s hunger for growth, Murray...
(The entire section is 1763 words.)