Monday, December 29, 2008

Books: The Emperor's Children, by Claire Messud

When this book came out two years ago, it was on every Best Of list that I read. Critics were foaming at the mouth with praise for its relevance, insisting that no book has ever captured so well the purgatorial zeitgeist of the Boomer's Ivy-educated babies, whose intellects are all dressed up with nowhere to go.

Messud couldn't have been happier; from the very start, she name-checks a canon of literature ranging from War and Peace to Infinite Jest, clearly with the intent of inserting herself into that canon. Unfortunately, her novel isn't up to snuff. She may have fooled the critics, appealing to their superiority by making references (Emerson! Musil!) that they can take pride in recognizing, but rather than creating anything fresh and/or meaningful, she instead writes a chatty, gossipy telenovela about three hip, if directionless, girls (okay, one's a gay guy, but for all of his interests, he might as well be a third woman) on the brink of—OMG—30.

These three friends went to Brown together years ago, but seem to have lost all their steam. Marina has been working on the same book (a kind of pop-dissertation on the historical relevance of children's clothes) for seven years, stymied by, well, the fact that a book is a hard thing to write (and also by the fact that her father is an incredibly famous left-wing journalist; she lives with her parents in their posh CPW apartment). Luckily, she's just met the dashing Ludivic Seely, a kind of Ayn Rand-cum-Oscar Wilde, who's hell-bent on taking New York by storm with his new cultural magazine The Monitor. Danielle is a public television producer who can't get her documentary on Aboriginies pushed through, and instead settles on a program about liposuction procedures gone awry. Her new love interest is. . . Marina's dad. The third musketeer is Julian, a freelance critic forced to take secret temp jobs to make ends meet. At one of these office gigs, he meets David Cohen, a boring but handsome and successful banker, and immediately moves in with him, disappearing from Marina and Danielle's lives.

The first wrench to get thrown into the system is Marina's cousin Bootie, an idealistic college dropout (he who reads Emerson and Musil, and dismisses Infinite Jest) who moves into the CPW apartment to work for Marina's father. There, he becomes disillusioned with his intellectual hero and writes a rabid, slanderous invective, reviewing the man's secret early drafts of a new, philosophical project, pretentiously entitled "How to Live." Seely wants to publish the article in The Monitor, and Marina does not; this is a small problem, as they are getting married.

Luckily, a new wrench destroys everybody's plans: 9/11. I'm certain that The Emperor's Children has also made the Best of 9/11 Literature list (um, ew?) but I'm a bit uncomfortable about using the disaster as a plot device. The argument can be made that the incident did change the course of every New Yorker's life, but I still find it in poor taste that Messud resorts to invoking a historical incident to give her piddling, self-important characters relevance in the real world. Like each of her other pop-intellectual quotations, 9/11 is, in this way, reduced to cultural flotsam, another shred of gossip, another invitation for the supposedly-savvy reader to empathize.

The book's title is an abridged version of the Seely-inspired title of Marina's book: The Emperor's Children Have No Clothes. Ironically enough, it seems that The Emperor's Children has no clothes, either.

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