April 30, 2010


Lately, I’ve been exploring my overwhelming love for New York through the books I’ve been reading. First up – Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children – a great contemporary New York novel, set in the months leading up to September 11 and immediately after. With a bit of satire and a whole lot of insight, the novel follows three friends, and the many people in their lives, as they approach their thirties with little to show for themselves. With this many characters and such big themes and events, the book may sound overarching. It certainly is ambitious, and is a work that, in other hands, could have easily failed miserably. But Messud writes it so well, never making it overtly satiric or sentimental. She manages to create completely recognizable characters (right up to how infuriating people can be) and situations, while still making grand statements about American privilege, entitlement, and how New York/ the country was at that particular moment.

Danielle, Marina, and Julius are the three near-thirty friends – graduates of Brown University – trying to make their way in New York. They all fancy themselves as some sort of intellectual artist; excluding Danielle (the most sensible of the three and the only one who kind of works), they are writers who don’t actually write and consider themselves above the plebian duty of holding down a ‘job’ in an ‘office.’ As we see how they see their lives – their disappointments over what went wrong, what the world owes them, why they are basically failures – we also see how other people in their lives see them and themselves. There is Murray Thwaite, Marina’s renowned journalist/ talking head father, whose shadow covers everyone else in the book. There’s Ludovic Seeley, the Australian journalist/ entrepreneur who comes to New York to (successfully, though not necessarily as he intended) turn everything on its head. Then there is Bootie, Murray’s young and unfamiliar nephew who comes to New York to follow in his esteemed uncle’s footsteps, only to quickly become disillusioned and throw a wrench into the machine.

The New York of most of the novel is its own world, and one which Messud gently but deftly satirizes and exposes. As such a successful and well-known personality, Murray Thwaite and his family (complete with Marina, even as she approaches 30) live in a ritzy penthouse on the Upper West Side; it is here, and through this family, that most of the characters’ lives intersect. Murray is the typical liberal intellectual superstar: a man of the 60’s whose hypocritical head has been blown up by fame, considers himself above even his own affirmations, and who won’t lift a finger to clean their home (that, naturally, is left to his working wife – the only truly admirable character in the book and, incidentally, the only one whose thoughts we never hear). The entitlement that accompanies this life defines Marina and (despite their downtown, non-ritzy addresses), spills over onto Danielle and Julius. When Ludovic, as someone who is sort of diametrically opposed to all that Murray stands for, enters the picture and Bootie, Emerson-devotee that he is, begins to see through Murray, things get interesting (and uncomfortable). Not until towards the end of the book does September 11 hit; because no dates are used throughout the book and no hint of what was to come was ever apparent, in reading it I was, as the characters were and as it was in reality, blindsided by that day.

More than the intertwining stories of all the characters, or the satirizing of New York high society, or the reflections on the lost generation of entitled but disillusioned young people, The Emperor’s Children is about a specific and unique moment in time, right before everything changed. Covering that day in books or movies or anything is a very delicate business – how can it be represented successfully in any kind of artistic or fictional medium without reducing it or risking people’s personal experience with it? Honestly, if I had known before I began the book (and started loving it) that it would reach September 11, I don’t know that I would have read it (so I guess, if anyone is reading this and was considering reading the book, you can now make an informed decision). But I am glad I did; Messud handles it so well, perfectly illustrating the complete shift everything took right after. With that, and with her amazingly perceptive insights on her characters and the archetypes they represent, Messud wrote an incredibly compelling novel, one in which I (interestingly), became more invested in as the characters became less and less likable. Plus, for all their pretension and hypocrisy, who wouldn’t want to be a part of the Thwaite’s New York?

April 28, 2010

New York

"I would give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of New York's skyline. Particularly when one can't see the details. Just the shapes. The shapes and the thought that made them. The sky over New York and the will of man made visible. What other religion do we need?"

- Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead, 1943

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April 21, 2010

FIELD WORK by Seamus Heaney

Earlier today, if the forces of the working world (a term I use loosely in my situation) hadn't conspired against me, I should have been at a reading by one of my favorite living poets, Seamus Heaney. He spoke at Hunter College, as part of their MFA program's Distinguished Writers Series, and I was invited to the free (!) event by way of my awesome boss (can't wait to hear about it tomorrow!). Though in the end I didn't get to see him, I did get to spend my commute reading from my newly purchased (and, alas, unsigned) copy of his collection of poems, Field Work.
Also, I didn't feel too horribly - I have seen him speak once before. This was at University College Dublin, when one morning a friend informed me that he would be speaking in her class that afternoon. Naturally, we dropped everything and went, and he was wonderful. In fact, I distinctly remember his reading of a poem from Field Work, "A Drink of Water." It is a beautiful, simple poem that he spoke of fondly, as a representation of his time in a sort of seclusion in the mountains of Wicklow (during which all of Field Work was written). Heaney really is an amazing poet (Nobel Prize-winning!) and I hope I get to see him again someday soon. Here is a short poem from Field Work, that seems somehow fitting in the Springtime:


A rowan like a lipsticked girl
Between the by-road and the main road
Alder trees at a wet and dripping distance
Stand off among the rushes.

There are the mud-flowers of dialect
And the immortelles of perfect pitch
And that moment when the bird sings very close
To the music of what happens.

-Seamus Heaney, 1979

On another note, I promise (mostly just to myself) that this space will soon be filled with more book discussions. I have a quickly-growing pile of books that have been read and are waiting to be written about, amongst them The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, The Year of Magical Thinking, The Emperor's Children, and Let the Great World Spin. Sometimes it is tough to get the motivation to write when I'd rather be reading my really good book - a problem (albeit a good one) that I seem to be encountering often these days.

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April 05, 2010

Cheers to National Poetry Month

It seems April is National Poetry Month and, as the New York Times book blog Paper Cuts points out, what better way to celebrate than the way most great poets would - by drinking? I love the Book Bench's assemblage of literary-inspired drinks (I especially want to try the somewhat surprising Winnie the Pooh-inspired Honeysuckle Rouge). And the American Academy of Poets has a few drink recipes inspired by specific poems, as well as a list of New York bars participating this month in this literary drink-fest (many of which I hope to visit before the month is out). Personally, my favorite thing to do when I feel like channeling favorite writers through alcohol in New York (aside from visiting Dylan Thomas at the White Horse Tavern) is to have a gin and tonic (I'm not brave enough for Highballs) at a swanky bar uptown while pretending I'm in a F. Scott Fitzgerald short story. Of course, this doesn't happen nearly as often as I'd like (read: hardly ever), but it makes me happy to pretend.

April 04, 2010

POINT OMEGA by Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo is probably one of our most important contemporary authors – certainly one of America’s best writers writing today. That said, his books are not always easy to get through, or enjoyable. I haven’t tackled some of his most intimidating works, like Underworld or Libra, but I loved White Noise. His last two books – the recently released Point Omega and, before that, Falling Man – I found to be a bit disappointing. Even now, writing about Point Omega a week after I finished it, I’m having a difficult time recalling its details and my immediate reaction to it. Unlike with White Noise, the characters and ideas behind Point Omega left me as soon as I closed the book. Though, this isn’t to say it is a bad book – I don’t think DeLillo is capable of that. It was still a worthwhile read.

Point Omega follows Richard Elster, an aging academic just coming off a stint working in the government as a sort of war strategist; a “defense intellectual,” kept around to intellectually justify and explain war. Following this, he has retreated to the desert as an escape from the busyness of reality and his thoughts. He is joined in his desert isolation by a young filmmaker interested in making a sort of avant-garde documentary about the man, and whose eyes we see Elster through. As their days meld together and they silently watch the colorful desert sunsets, we learn their philosophies of self, time, and death, and who they feel they are when stripped of all reality in this strange isolation. This is mostly what the book is – what they think and feel when there is nothing else to think about, and all focus has turned inward. When Elster’s daughter arrives, their routine shifts and they attempt to adjust their lives of the mind to include her, until something strange happens and they have to figure out how to adapt to this new reality that they cannot escape. (Vague, I know, but so was the book.)

DeLillo has a wonderful way with places. When it comes to descriptions, he has no use for flowery language (which, when misused, can undermine its very point). In portraying the isolation of the desert and the glory of the sunsets, he avoids overt descriptions while still capturing the power the place holds over his characters and conveying the sunset’s beauty. Similarly, the first and last scene of the book are all about setting, though a very different one. In a story that is seemingly incongruous with the rest of the book but ultimately comes together, these scenes take place in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in an exhibit entitled “24 Hour Psycho.” In a number of articles I read about the book when it first came out, DeLillo cited this installation exhibit – one that actually took place, in the summer of 2006 – as the main inspiration for writing the book. In writing about it, he makes the exhibit (a screening of Psycho, slowed down so that it plays once over 24 hours) somehow transcendent; a breaking down of the film and, consequentially, real life. It made me wish I had seen the exhibit when it was on display.

Clearly, I didn’t actively dislike DeLillo’s Point Omega. He is a fantastic writer who makes powerful stuff out of no plot. And yet, though there were parts and aspects I admired, the book didn’t stay with me. For all its life philosophies, none of the ideas struck me. Perhaps I’m still holding DeLillo up to his own White Noise standard, but I continue to return his recent books to the library let down. Maybe its time for me to visit his older, more daunting works – Underworld, here I come?

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