A forgettable centre of all imagination
The Emperor’s Children By Claire Messud Picador, 432pp, $ 32.95
IT is fair to assume that unless it involves a manhandled crocodile, Australia does not much register on the US radar, so it was a surprise to find the opening chapter of American Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children set at a Sydney cocktail party. There’s a rasping hostess, a writer of lame novels, an art dealer, a snake named Ludovic Seeley and a high- minded lass from Manhattan exploring the possibilities of making a film in Australia about the lives of Aborigines.
Danielle Minkoff will shortly be back on her home turf, her film plans scotched by her boss, and her precarious world unfolds for the reader. Only towards the end of this novel, Messud’s fourth, do we grasp that the whole book is structured around things that don’t happen ( ambitious plans fail to materialise, memoirs are unfinished, poisonous articles are binned, illjudged affections are thwarted), and one big thing that does: the destruction of Manhattan’s twin towers.
This being New York, everyone is pursuing some phantom goal, even the famous ageing journalist Murray Thwaite, who built an early and successful career by being in the world’s trouble spots at the right time. In fact, he’s been resting on his laurels for years, regurgitating homilies and truisms at loftier and loftier functions, and serenely convinced of his relevance. Perhaps this is why he is having so much difficulty writing his piece de resistance, which nests, embarrassing him, in a locked drawer of his study desk.
His daughter, the lovely Marina, is spoilt, reluctant to leave the rambling West Side apartment home and too lazy ( or too self- aware) to finish a history of dressing children she was commissioned to write years earlier.
Julius, an old college mate who was briefly a literary shooting star on a prominent New York magazine, is distracted by too much rough trade, and Danielle, a friend to them both, deals with the setbacks to her film proposals by retreating to a small, white, monastic apartment with a window facing the twinkling grid of Manhattan and four perfect Rothko prints on a wall.
Two people break in on this circle defined by its habits. One is Seeley, the snake from Sydney, and the other is Thwaite’s nephew Bootie. The former is planning to upend Manhattan with a new cultural magazine called The Monitor, and what better way to establish instant notoriety than by marrying Marina, which he accomplishes with astonishing ease and unseemly haste.
Bootie is a plump, shambling, self- conscious bumpkin from Watertown, a city in New York’s Jefferson County, who is fixated on some greater truth than his own mediocrity will allow him to glimpse. He is befriended by the Thwaite family only to disgrace himself with an illadvised expose on his uncle.
The horror and confusion unleashed by the crumbling of the towers gives him a chance to slip away, out of their lives, out of his life, to another town and another beginning.
The novel finishes with everyone attending his funeral and a reminder that mothers are always there to pick up the pieces.
Messud is an established and admired novelist. Three of her works were listed as notable books for the year by the The New York Times , and twice she has been a finalist for the PEN/ Faulkner Award, so this reviewer feels somewhat out of step calling her prose selfconscious. For every crisp observation ( the Metropolitan’s fashion galleries are like penumbral catacombs, an open- plan office resembles a human parking lot) and every flash of insight ( Danielle’s speculations on why people have children), there are endless parenthetical elaborations that deliver not complexity but a blanket of blandness.
Although the novel is carefully constructed and elegantly written, Messud’s subject and her style invite rumination on the convention ( should there be such a thing) of fiction writing in this riven 21st century.
Does the novel still have a role in fixing forever in our imaginations a place and its denizens in their own inimitable time?
Once people poured into New York to trap furs, then to build forests of tenements and churn out garments. Now they go to create films and plays and books, about films and plays and books. The word solipsism springs to mind, although this may be too harsh. The New York of these characters — a city of holograms and force fields that seem to have been generated by nothing more than a subliminal metropolitan will power — is not, as the characters serenely believe, superior to the hopes and fantasies generated in suburban backwaters or smalltown provinces.
While Danielle has the memorable line ‘‘ I measure my life out in books’’, no one in this story will be living and breathing in the reader’s mind one week after putting the book down, which must surely be the ultimate achievement of any novel.