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Flirting with disaster

In The Emperor's Children, Claire Messud imagines a New York where the privileged dither as the sky darkens

The Emperor's Children
By Claire Messud
Knopf, 431 pp., $25

At its finest, social comedy promises a soft landing without utterly turning its back on the world. Irony bumping into realism, in other words, and in Claire Messud's case, a bit of Jane Austen bumping into Tom Wolfe. ``The Emperor's Children" is a big ol' New York novel -- more particularly, a Manhattan novel, concentrating as it does on the echelons of power and hipness that operate chiefly around downtown and the Upper West Side. And let's not forget the obligatory summer sojourns, this one to Stockbridge, Mass., where the country house is built tight as a ship and the scotch is single malt.

That Messud is the creator of this gauzy and amusing world gives ``The Emperor's Children" some gravitas as well as some surprise. Her previous fiction has included two novels of exile and a spooky set of novellas that displayed hints of a young master. She is a literary writer both brainy and deep, and that sensibility hovers throughout ``The Emperor's Children," even when it feels that she may be slumming a bit. In her group portrait of a set of young privileged friends from Brown -- now facing 30 and a grown-up world of wider entitlements and troubles -- she has devised a wicked way to penetrate the realms of New York journalism and publishing and liberals in wolves' clothing. Her perspective is fierce but unbiased, the goal being to defrock those who deserve it. Which, even for the kindest satirist, means everyone within shouting distance.

The emperor most in need of having his throne upset is Murray Thwaite, legendary prince of lost causes with a towering reputation he no longer earns. He's middle-aged and happily married to the nobly suffering Annabel, a lawyer who turns her back on Murray's indiscretions by focusing on her own charges in need. Murray is all ego and puffery, recycling his old writings on, say, Bosnia, to address a new international catastrophe somewhere else. He has a manuscript under lock and key that's as self-deluded as Casaubon's ``The Key to All Mythologies," and a daughter who, at times, is just as promising and empty. Marina Thwaite is a gorgeous young woman with the obligatory existential crisis and a looming publishing deadline -- the book in question being a savvy cultural analysis of children's fashion. But Marina has gotten no further than a tortured synopsis until she meets Ludovic Seeley, an opportunistic Australian import who's in New York to launch a new must-have magazine called The Monitor.

This tableau is rounded out by Marina's two closest friends, one the heart and conscience of the novel and the other its downtrodden Puck. Danielle Minkoff is a struggling TV documentary producer whose proposals are mostly too serious for a celebrity-sick world; it's telling enough that, to soothe herself, she covers the walls of her studio apartment with Rothko's monothematic prints. Julius Clarke is a darling raconteur in the legend of his own mind: a downtown critic whose access to the scene is helped by the fact that he is both gay and half-Vietnamese. A slave to power but utterly without it, Julius knows that the distance is far too short ``from charming wastrel to needy, boring failure." And then there's Bootie.

The hapless, college-drop-out nephew to the great Murray, Frederick ``Bootie" Thwaite is the brilliant characterization of the novel. He's overweight and dreamy, either tilting at windmills or lying in his mom's bathtub in Watertown, N.Y., pretending to read Melville and Pynchon. But it's Emerson who sticks -- or at least a bastardization of Emerson, coaching Bootie to grab ahold of his life and create an identity free of society's flotsam. So he heads to Manhattan to insinuate himself into Murray's household, hoping the shimmer of his uncle's intellectual stature will rub off onto him.

The set up here is fairly delicious, what with Marina falling madly for the snake-like Ludo (who despises her dad), Danielle beginning an e-mail affair with Murray (who finds in his daughter's best friend a glorious taboo), and Julius moving from temp job to fabulous new (if bland) boyfriend, ``the chino'ed center of the privileged nation." When Bootie finagles a job as Murray's assistant, the flabby fox is in the henhouse -- in part because Ludo has commissioned him to write an expose of the ``disintegrating giant" who is his uncle. A comedy of ongoing errors ensues: Marina must come to terms with her father's fallibility as well as her own; Julius is thrown up against his self-destructive impulses; and Danielle has to discover that her little tragedy is (a) little and (b) therefore not a tragedy.

These are life lessons that usually belong to the young and the restless, and Messud, with her evenly distributed skepticism , knows this as well as anyone. Her eye is keen for the elaborate tableau she's constructed, whether the illusions of intellectual intrigue Bootie perceives in Murray's salon or the self-important, vague hubris of her cast. But such sharpness of vision can't quite compensate for a hollowness to the greater story. The provincialism of this narrow world can be a wearying place to linger, however engaging its delivery and however shrewd its narrative intelligence.

We know, though, that those Rothko-covered walls do not bode well -- particularly as autumn approaches in an undesignated recent year. That we are coming up on Labor Day weekend in New York suggests, with mounting realization, that the year is 2001, and that fact, to echo a now-accepted sentiment, changes everything. Messud handles the last quarter of the novel brilliantly, its outcome unfolding with Danielle's grasp that ``beauty and loss were inseparably entwined." Mostly, ``The Emperor's Children" is funny and captivating, like Marina's wedding dress, an exercise in lovely sea-foam chiffon. But I prefer the ``late summer, intoxicated Rothko sunset" of Messud's fiction -- that interstice between the tragic and the sublime where men like Murray turn out to be (his worst nightmare) inconsequential, after all.

Gail Caldwell is chief book critic of the Globe. She can be reached at caldwell@globe.com.

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