The emperor’s children wear cliches
The Emperor’s Children. A novel by Claire Messud. Knopf, $25, 431 pp.
Gertrude Stein once urged Ernest Hemingway to read only “what is truly good or what is frankly bad.” This was shrewd advice, and a case in point is The Emperor’s Children, a novel that spends much of its time in the no-fly-zone.
Claire Messud serves up a cast ripe for the kind of black-hearted satire that drove The Bonfire of the Vanities: Murray Thwaite, a 60-year-old who practices what he calls “moral journalism,” and the family and friends who don’t know whether to idealize or demonize him.
But Messud lacks the cutthroat instincts needed to do justice to her repellant characters, who bob from Sydney to Manhattan on a tide of scotch and Belvedere martinis in the seven months ending in November 2001. The Emperor’s Children is partly about the anxieties of parental influence, or as one character puts it, about how the sins of the father taint the children, “the way our broader society is like a parent, and visits its complexes on the citizenry, if you will.” Ungainly lines like that one slow the pace of the novel to a crawl, and the story doesn’t pick up steam until the last hundred pages, when the events of Sept. 11 give it a push. And while the plot elements click neatly into place at the end, by then we’ve spent much of the novel listening to characters say things like: “Think about it: there’s nothing worse than pretension, and false pretension is the bottom of the barrel.” Think about it: Isn’t pretension always false?
Best line: A middle-aged woman suggests why men can so easily forget the women they’re sleeping with: “Look at your father. Compartmentalizing. It’s like cows having four stomachs. It seems like sophistication but it’s actually the sign of a more primitive organism.”
Worst line (tie): Winner No. 1: Julius “never knew in life whether to be Pierre or Natasha, the solitary, brooding loner or the vivacious social butterfly.” As opposed to a loner who isn’t solitary? Winner No. 2: “It filled her with despair, a literal leadening of her limbs, a glazing of the eyes, so that she could barely lift the sheets of paper around her, and certainly couldn’t decipher what was written upon them.” Let’s see. Where to start with this line? With that “leadening” that wasn’t literal but metaphorical? With that windy “upon” instead of “on”? Or just with the number of cliches?
Recommended if … unlike Stein, you don’t mind novels that are just okay, or can turn off your internal cliche meter.
Consider reading instead: Snobs (St. Martin’s, 2004) by Julian Fellowes, who won the Oscar for best original screenplay for Gosford Park. Fellowes shows all the literary ruthlessness that Messud lacks in this acerbic comedy of manners about a beautiful commoner who marries into the English aristocracy during its twilight in the 1990s.
Published: August 2006
Posted by Janice Harayda
(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.