In Chapter One of The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud, a concept is introduced using a reference to a sign in a grubby-looking NYC Chinese restaurant. The sign reads, “Our chef is very famous in London.” This serves as an utter admittance of the fact that things aren’t going well in the Big Apple.
The irony is thick; so says the disparity between the reactions of hierarchy (literary critics) and commoners (readers) to The Emperor’s Children. It’s been six years since its release, but the chasm remains. Much of the void may have to do with the author’s publishing-realm inferences — flying way over the heads of the average reader (myself included). It seems that this book is ‘very famous’ in literary circles; it is, after all, a book about writers. But because novels are marketed to readers, not writers, it’s still pretty grubby everywhere else.
Many readers will find themselves leaving bread crumb trails through quagmire-ish sentence structures. It’s certainly not the type of reading that eyes, or resulting comprehension, can slip smoothly through. But the prose won’t be too pointy a thorn for everyone — many will enjoy the fluency challenge and the writer’s reign over words (as I did).
My delight stops there. [spoiler alert!]
If I could speak with Ms. Messud, I would ask her if she despises her characters as much as I do. I can only hope that she does.* This would help to justify The Emperor’s Children as a work of satire, as opposed to one of character-driven or plot-driven entertainment. My biggest challenge proved to be finding endearing, relatable qualities in any of the main characters. As demonstrated in my impressions of them:
Murray is a liberal writer and former activist who is made uncomfortable by the presence of an underprivileged black youth whom his wife is defending. He sets out to preach about fortitude and honesty in a forthcoming book while simultaneously boinking his daughter’s best friend.
Marina, Murray’s daughter and incestuous innuendo, is her father’s protegé in every sense of the word except the writing. She and her father don’t clean up after the cat, don’t even dispose of her pet cat’s dead body. This is presumed, and proves to be, her mother Annabel’s responsibility. Marina has been “struggling” to finish writing a book for seven years. “Struggling” suggests that she’s putting forth some type of effort.
Danielle is Marina’s friend from college. A film concept that was promising in Australia isn’t looking so good in NYC. Now she’s stuck writing about ass liposuction’s tragic victims. To dull the pain of her ordinary life, she sleeps with her best friend’s father.
Julius, the stereotypical gay friend of Danielle and Marina, is an unemployed freelance critic who [woefully] works at clerical tasks for a temp agency. He involves himself in a hurtful relationship, takes drugs, and occupies himself with virtually anonymous sexual trysts. Sadly, the most descriptive and only enthralling scenes in the book are of his sexual encounters and his violent bathroom love-triangle skirmish.
Ludo, the magazine editor hopeful and implied homosexual from Down Under, marries Marina in a veiled effort to get closer to his nemesis, Murray.
Most infuriating is Bootie. Too arrogant for college, too intelligent for small town life, he ends up mooching from Murray and Annabel, eating their lamb stew and gourmet potato chips while refusing to clean up after his fat, foul-smelling self.
Just when I had abandoned all hope that these losers would suck it up, grow up, and get jobs, two planes hit the World Trade Center. But, to my continued dismay, all plodded on with self-absorption — one escaping to lie on a beach, another to take on a new persona, and another to wallow in the death of his magazine while bashing New Yorkers’ grief. Not only was this “turning point” an unimaginative, predictable non-twist, it brings about no mourning, no closure, and no reciprocal good.
I’m nearly certain that Claire Messud speaks with satire. But here’s the problem, as reflected in the chasm between the 1-star and 5-star reviews: the typical reader should be warned; they should be advised not to expect to develop any type of relationship with these characters; they should know that they’ll more likely grow to despise the cardboard cut-outs because, as in all good satire, the author’s aim is to poke fun at both the characters and the audience. The reason I dislike the book’s personalities with a seething hostility is that their worst qualities (which happen to be most of their qualities) reflect the parts of myself that I loathe. This is satire’s goal.
Conversely, I can’t speak for Messud’s goals with The Emperor’s Children. If she’s poking fun at Manhattan intelligentsia, their laziness, and their senses of entitlement, I get it and she’s done a superb job. I liked her creations less with each page turn. They have, after all, managed to preserve those blasted “personal myths” that Anthony Powell speaks of. On the other end, if her intention was to endear these characters to me through the bemoaning of the great weights they bear, along with parental blame and the world’s lack of appreciation for their remarkable blue blood and raw talent, I’d rather read The Little Engine that Could.
If your reading pleasure is fed by plot, I would not suggest investing in The Emperor’s Children. If you like to make three-dimensional friends between the covers (of a book, that is), I would also suggest that you pass by. However, if you’d like to catch a drawn-out glimpse into the life of the over-privileged, under-satisfied upper level of society, go for it. I believe (and fear) that the portrayal is rather accurate. After all, this book is “very famous” in New York.
*I’m not heartened by Messud’s statement that she “gets to know” her characters as she writes, or her belief that books don’t need to have a distinct message, as referenced here. This forces me to wonder if she initially intended to further develop the characters, and to find a theme, but that just never happened, making the literary community’s categorization of the work as “satire” nothing more than a life-preserver grappled for at the first sign of book-overboard.