Monday, January 22, 2007

The Emperor's Children

So, I finally finished Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children. I felt about it much as I did about Zadie Smith's On Beauty--why take all this talent and time to write about these people. Look, I don't need a book to be a feel-good romp. I'm totally a Hardy "because we are too many" girl, and it's damn difficult to find a truly admirable character in anything by Fitzgerald. The very same could be said about both of my top 2006 books (see previous posts). But, you still care about the characters in these novels, want to spend time with them, want to see what happens to them. For all its length, The Emperor's Children seems such a small book, about small people with sadly small ideas; people you want to avoid. Though I haven't read anything else by Messud, it is tempting to compare The Emperor's Children to Marina's own book: a project likely not worth the talent of the writer.

A while back, while reading Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep, I found a fundamental gap in the book: where is the music? Wouldn't these preppies be listening to something? The absence of music became a jarring presence that distanced me from the book in a big way. In reading Messud's book, I faced a similar distancing question: why aren't these characters in grad school? These are not working world people, even quasi-working world people. In real life, Marina, Danielle, and Julius would be gathered in their TA offices, still at Brown, speaking in disaffectedly reverential tones about the post-postness of it all while fraternizing with their dissertation chairs, sleeping with their students, and avoiding their writing. Restaging it this way would explain their shallow faux-depth; their incestuous circling and coincidental collisions. But, in the sharky world of Manhattan, they seem so out of place--especially at 30, which is a bit old in the tooth for the town. Also, since when is New York the smallest big city in the world? And, has Messud ever been to Miami? The chance of accidentally running into anyone there is even lower than it would be in NYC. And the chance of even a slimmer-Bootie being hired in a South Beach restaurant. Uh, yeah, that would be Less Than Zero.

Then, again, who would hire Danielle? She doesn't seem to have a single idea worth paying for--let alone sending her to Australia (Australia??? Um, okay) to explore. Julius seems like a gay fifth card character on an old Sex in the City. And Marina. There's nothing to her. Again, maybe her opacity is intentional. I can't believe that her entire character is simply to be a daddy's girl, the emperor's child. And Bootie. He's not just touched; he's actually unbelievable. Even a character as odd as he is wouldn't believe Marina would accept a rip-up-one-side-and-down-another article about her own father. I mean, really. Ludovic Seeley? Seriously. And, why give one chapter to Aurora if it's not going anywhere.

And, what's with the guest appearance of 9/11? There's such a "and then the CHUDS came" quality about the way this awful event is used in the narrative. It seems to come out of nowhere and recede just as quickly, a useful plot churner. Why use 9/11 without going somewhere with it? For all that it impacts the narrative content, it could have been a freak tsunami or one of those Jake Gyllenhaal-stranding ice storms from The Day After Tomorrow.

Well, dear reader, it's safe to say I'm not a fan of this book, and given all the hoopla surrounding it, I'm really disappointed. But, I'm throwing caution to the wind and diving into Calamity Physics next. Let's hope the second hyped-time is the charm.

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