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?