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.)