Late Summer Reading: Books About Terrible People

Most of the characters in Claire Messud’s lush and vicious fourth novel, The Emporer’s Children, are funny, bright, entitled New Yorkers – and they’re all fairly horrible human beings. You recognize them, you walk along with them, but you don’t sympathize. And why would you? The “emporer” of the title is lordly literary genius Murray Thwaite, an overblown writer and man of both letters and talking head territory – a haughty waste of a man surviving on his reputation and cruel to boot. He seduces his 30-year-old daughter’s best friend, ignores his loyal wife, looks down his nose at his upstate relations, and enables his daughter’s failures.

Yet, the world of Messud’s tale revolves around Murray’s dwindling light – until the karmic bill comes due in September, 2001. I appreciated that Messud didn’t avoid stereotypes; she plumbed their depths and found some wellspring water instead. And she captured the climbing, selling, soul-numbing existence that’s necessary – absent evident and productive brilliance – in New York’s literary business.

In the end, these truly horrible people finally confront an emotional crisis and the idea that that an outside world can indeed puncture the ambition of their reading circles. The question at the end is simply “why?” Were these self-absorbed people worth plumbing – or was their shallow narcissism the very point. Messud’s book came out last year, but I read it last week and it seemed a good marker against some of my other summer reading, fictional side of the coverlet. It left me unsettled and unsatisfied; I admire the skill in crafting the relationships and the storyboard, but wondered about the flimsy underlying message – did I somehow miss it?

In terms of self-absorbed New Yorkers – and women who write and aspire – I much preferred Laura Jacobs’ 2003 novel, Women About Town, which I read earlier this summer. Why? I liked those characters, especially the loony lampshade designer with the blue-blooded pedigree. They were more of a gas to hang out with. (So call me shallow. Go ahead. I dare you.)Also, money matters in Women About Town – just as it actually does about town. Precisely, the lack of money matters. And for artistic types – designers and dance critics – it’s never easy to come by, never easy to maintain a smallish life of some worthy style in Manhattan. There’s a wonderful episode in Jacobs’ novel (her first) describing Iris Biddle, who married into the Mayflower family, and her attachment to both her ex-husband and the huge piece of antique cabinetry she associates with their marriage and a happier time in her life. Anyone who’s found some wildly inappropriate object, brought it home, and stubbornly made it fit will appreciate the authenticity: it feels real.

The book pretends to be about ambition, but I found it squarely at odds with that particular emotional drive. Ambition is not at all a benevolent force for the two main characters – who aren’t so terrible as the people around them – and I suspect Jacobs feels ambivalent about its nerve-gas like effect on New Yorkers in general. [Note: Jacobs is married to James Wolcott, a friend of this blog and blogger.] The other force at work, of course, is guilt.

That’s not an emotion to be found in Engleby, the portrayal of a British university student by Sebastian Faulks. It’s an internal story told heavily in flashbacks, rife with class distinction and public school torture and hazing. Mike Engleby is the strange, empty vessel at the center – obsessed with fellow student Jennifer Arkland and unemotional as he records the details of his life.

The novel is due out next week, and it’s the kind of book you can easily see as a film – dark and chilling and empty of redemption. I loved the portrayal of England, stark and class-conscious and yet obsessed with the daily details of human life, the routine. Rupert Thomson’s Death of a Murderer is less chilling, but he too gets this right. (I read this one on the recommendation of the always-reliable Maud Newton and didn’t regret it).

Billy Tyler is an emotionally dead, unambitious policeman in Manchester, and is assigned to guard the body of an infamous mass murderer in the morgue of the hospital where she died. The book’s really about Tyler’s own life – his failing marriage, his love for his Down’s Syndrome child, and his spiral toward middle-aged decline. Tyler has settled and regrets it – his “conversation” with the murderer shows him just how darkness that empty space inside him really is. It’s a cold, short read and well worth the cool journey.

A warmer American journey through the badlands of Depressions-era carnival sideshows and second-rate hotels is the setting for Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician, Daniel Wallace’s new novel, which I polished off last week. It’s a tough narrative to follow – purposely obtuse – and it introduces a marching band of characters: a brilliant and wrecked magician, a couple of shady managers, a half-dead assistant, a gang of Bible-thumping Klan members bent on murder, an alcoholic father, and the usual assortment of sideshow freaks.

Henry Walker is the world’s greatest magician, but is twisted by war and the business of selling entertainment, peddling illusion. Race is at the center of this book, but it makes no real judgement about racism. Henry’s color – without revealing too much – simply changes to fit the plot, and many of the characters also seem to have doubles – or else the protagonist is deluded. It’s not clear. But the portrait of life in small theaters and smaller midway tents is compelling, as is the novel’s sense of time and place. Like the others, it introduces terrible people – but lets the reader know that bad behavior is as human as breathing.

Comments 5

  • I thought the underlying theme of The Emperor’s Children was that NYC’s cultural elite (and thus the people who are responsible for much of mass culture in America) consists of people who came to the city to revolutionize it, set it on its ear, burn it down, etc–but when everybody’s doing that, or pretending to, no one is, and thus it turns into a system that produces the same old sameness.

  • I guess it was, but that particular theme never caught me – it’s so old and obvious really. I thought she didn’t mean us to take that as the main point, another outsiders-in-New York tale with the city winning in the end. And none of the characters was in any way revolutionary – they talked about it a bit at odd moments, but never did anything. Even the “Idiot” character had no revolution in his heart really; turning on his mentor – well that’s been done before. No – I found it interesting only as a period piece.

  • I’m trying to read The Emperor’s Children for the 2nd time and not sure I can stick it this time, either. I keep reading the voluminous blurbs and thinking it must be better than it seems to be to me. Same feeling as above: the characters are appalling but not in terribly interesting or novel ways. So what is the point? I wonder also. If what we think it is–“these are what the NYC literati/cultural avatars are like, look ye in dread”–then color me “shocked, just shocked.” They’re all despicable and ordinary and cliched. Is it so well-reviewed b/c Claire Messud is married to James Wood, the critic’s critic, and everyone thinks it simply must have passed muster w/ him, so must be deep and good? It is amply supplied in details, but in every other way does not seem worthy of its accolades. What aspect of this book rewards the reader’s investment? I wonder….

  • Rebecca – I had similar reaction. I will say this – it’s very competent writing, and I did feel like I was “in” some of the interiors. That was nicely done: the old house, the west side apartment, the chelsea pad, the east village dive. But there was a central casting quality about the horrible literary NY snobs. You want to say, “yeah…and?”