Messud exceeds expectations with 'Emperor's Children'

by Laura Romain | 10/24/06 5:00am

Claire Messud's new book "The Emperor's Children" could very well be subtitled "Great Expectations." The novel, which was released to impressive critical acclaim, interweaves the stories of three friends who first met as talented, promising undergraduates at Brown University (a very fashionable alma mater for fictional characters nowadays) and who have since pursued professional success in the whirl and dazzle of New York City.

First, there is Marina Thwaite, a radiant, violet-eyed socialite, and the daughter of legendary activist and liberal journalist Murray Thwaite. Marina occasionally wants to change the world, but her perpetually-unfinished book about children's clothing, a throwback to her days as a "Vogue" it girl, doesn't quite seem the ticket to world peace.

Next comes Julius Clarke, an endearingly threadbare intellectual hobnobber of the Oscar Wilde variety. His meticulous silk cravats may belie his Michigan upbringing, but Julius feels the sparkling genius of his early freelancing days fizzling out, and he soon finds himself taking on unsatisfying temp positions and disappointing sexual flings.

Finally, Messud's favorite character is Danielle Minkoff, a good-hearted television producer who craves weighty program ideas but finds herself covering liposuction accidents. Her carefully described, pristine apartment is lined with Rothko reproductions and all her favorite books.

Now on the brink of 30, however, these three begin to worry that they will never realize their original potential.

Enter Frederic "Bootie" Tubb, Marina's cousin, and the slyly gorgeous Ludovic Seeley, an Australian with designs on the New York publishing scene. Seeley's initial description reads like something out of a hyper-literary romance novel: He has "hooded eyes, a long Nabokovian brow," and a "long, feline slope."

Bootie, by contrast, is an awkward, highly-intellectual college drop-out who not-so-secretly aspires to become Murray Thwaite Number Two. With Marina, Seeley and Danielle stuck in a passive-aggressive love triangle, Julius' hasty attempt at a serious relationship, Murray Thwaite's imperfections revealed, Bootie's inevitable disillusionment, and the tragic events of September 11, 2001, Messud weaves her plot.

Unfortunately, despite the delicacy and care with which she intertwines these lives, Messud can't quite escape her own heavy-handedness. Her language can be unwieldy and unforgivably stilted, bogged down by convoluted syntax and arcane diction, such as: "She was so lovely, and so charming, but she'd been these things a long time, all her life; and he thought he had instilled in her the importance of being more than they," or in another example: "But the notes were several years old, and didn't readily serve their madeleine-like purpose of conjuring intellectual arguments entire."

Like the Proustian madeleine above, "The Emperor's Children" often resorts to literary name-dropping, sometimes cleverly and sometimes not (clever: Rumplestiltskin as a metaphor for someone who can make money from his or her talents; not clever: the self-conscious references to "War and Peace" that make Sparknotes look deep).

In spite of these shortcomings, Messud manages to produce an unexpectedly engrossing and moving plot and to breathe life and dynamism into characters and settings that at first seem static or commonplace. The novel opens to a Holly Golightly vision of high society: foot-long mother-of-pearl cigarette holders, women poised "like odalisques" on a divan, and the invisible servants' question of "red or white," echoing like "paper or plastic," in a check-out aisle.

This tendency toward haute monde gawping is countered by Messud's socially-critical eye, and the book is rescued from its heavy style and literary allusions by Messud's keen attention to detail. Even the chapter titles are almost distractingly brilliant: "Our Chef Is Very Famous In London," "The Pope Is Sick," "Do You, Napoleon?"

Messud's true gift lies in painting her characters with a pointillist's eye for representative minutiae. Nothing could trump the depictions of Bootie --- who hopes to become a transcendental philosopher in the vein of Thoreau or Emerson --- in his vocabulary-mongering: He associates an oscillating fan with "osculating" and fawningly adopts the word "amanuensis" from his uncle, proudly equating their situation with that of Pound and Yeats.

And what could be more perceptive than the description of Julius' ex-Green Beret father sitting in his "cramped and dark studio, poring over his son's reviews, his thick thighs in their chinos like extra pieces of furniture protruding into the room"? How could Ludovic Seeley's very name, let alone his obsession with Napoleon Bonaparte, seem any more ominous?

Through these sharply-crafted details, Messud ultimately exposes the superficiality, shortcomings and complexities of all her characters.

Above all, "The Emperor's Children" explores the tension between appearance and reality, youth and age, idealism and cynicism, possibility and impossibility. By embracing but refusing to resolve these contradictions, Messud expands a novel that could have been too stylized and too glamorous into a surprisingly poignant and expressive creation.