A for­get­table cen­tre of all imag­i­na­tion

The Em­peror’s Chil­dren By Claire Mes­sud Pi­cador, 432pp, $ 32.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Pa­tri­cia An­der­son

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.

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