Monday, May 13, 2013

Comedy and Catastrophe: The Emperor's Children


Window, by Alex Bulloch

 Comedy and Catastrophe

The Emperor's Children
 by Claire Messud, 2006

Friends: The Principals

Friends Marina, Julius and Danielle form the inner circle of The Emperor’s Children: they, along with a kind of satellite who spins around the threesome: Marina’s younger cousin Frederick “Bootie” Tubb, are the emperor’s children. The emperor, who may or may not be without clothes, is Marina’s father Murray Thwaite, a celebrated New Left intellectual possibly past his prime. Like her friends, Marina, at thirty, is drifting somewhat career-wise; much as she dislikes the fact, her claim to fame is that she is her father’s daughter. Julius is a butterfly. He lives a life of excess and, with minimal exertion, turns out clever pieces for the Village Voice. Having come from a less privileged background, Danielle has more drive than Marina or Julius, but appears to be drifting into spinsterhood. In the first chapter, we meet her in Sydney, researching a television show on Australia’s Aboriginals. At the beginning of the story, Marina has just moved into her parents’ home in Stockbridge. Danielle lives in a high rise in Lower Manhattan, in a dollhouse of a studio with her books, an ergonomic chair, and her ‘Rothko chapel’ – four framed Rothko posters on the wall. Julius has what all agree is a fleabag of an apartment. Raised in Watertown, super-bright Bootie is a college dropout who turns up in NewYork looking for intellectual adventure, and possibly, a mentor. Offered a job by his uncle Murray, Bootie soon moves in with the Thwaites.

Realism:  Supporting Cast and a Clustered Network

Into this realm of friendship come relatives and clusters of associates at three degrees of separation. Here come, occasionally, mothers (Marina’s mother Annabel, Danielle’s mother Randy, and Bootie’s mother Judy), and more often, suitors (journalist and would be mover and shaker Ludovic Seeley: for Danielle or Marina? floor trader David ‘Conehead’ Cohen for Julius), assorted persons from the work-a-day world (students, young professionals, Manhattanites, suburbanites, partygoers, the help, one-night stands, denizens of the gay bar scene, a Scarsdale family celebrating the Fourth, sycophants, career rivals, and urban crowds) and certain characters from history and literature (Napoleon, Madame de Staël, and notably Pierre and Natasha from War and Peace).

New York City Types, Stock Characters

While the novel’s core cast of characters may be relatively small, it has the feel of a much larger sampling of humanity. Why? Because the principals, Danielle, Julius, Marina, Bootie, and in the older generation, Murray – fully developed as individuals – also represent recognizable social types.

·      Danielle, afraid of being Always a Bridesmaid, is ambivalent about her middle class background and the inelegant mother who raised her. A frequent Guest of the Thwaites, she looks upon their charmed lives from just outside the family circle. If Messud’s novel were an updated War and Peace, Danielle might be an Angel of Resignation, a Modern-Day Sonya. Danielle as Messud wrote her, however, has a crimson dress to wear to Murray Thwaite’s awards ceremony, and is prompted to use a lively e-mail correspondence with her best friend’s father to rewrite the scripted Sonya role.

·      Julius might appear to be a gay stereotype, but isn’t. His Butterfly charm may have a particularly fée flavor, but paradoxically, through suffering an upheaval in his personal life in especially seamy circumstances, Julius emerges a Man of Gravitas. Battle-scarred, a Survivor, he becomes a kind of Representative of his Generation.

·      Marina: Fairytale Princess, Maven of Cool, Case of Arrested Development, is in every way her father’s daughter. She may be about to publish a book on fashion, but the source of her privilege, status, and security will always be family.

·      Bootie, from the story’s beginning, is all of these types: Prodigy, Drop-out, Autodidact, Outsider, Starving Student, Incognito.

·      Murray is the Celebrity Pundit, the New Left Intellectual, and the Emperor of the fairy tale.

Realism: Thickening the Stew

Furthering the illusion that the lives of her fictional stars represent the diversity of millennial America, is Messud’s strategy of presenting these characters as though their greatest visibility occurs when they stand at the center of a multiplicity of fluctuating relationships. Marina, for example, inhabits a world of friendships: Marina-Julius, Marina-Danielle; romance: Marina-Ludo, Marina-Frederick (as projected by Bootie); work: Marina-Murray, Marina-Ludo; and family: Marina-Murray, Marina-Annabel, Marina-Bootie. In the novel, each of Marina’s relationships is dramatized separately in short scenes of description and usually dialogue; Marina’s key relationships are then further illustrated in group scenes. Each of the other principals – Julius, Danielle, Bootie, Murray – is shown, in just as extensive a way, through a similar array of pair-bonds developed in short scenes typically of dialogue. The author’s iteration of the pairings of different characters in diverse settings broadens the scope of the novel, providing a kaleidoscope of constantly shifting points of view. Messud’s plotting of complex storylines via this broad and thickly clustered network extends the reach, and deepens the credibility, of the novel’s social and psychological realism.

The Novelist from the Novel

How to tell the novelist from the novel? Interviewed by Boris Kachka for an article in New York Magazine on the eve of the release of her fourth novel, The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud remarks on the evolution of her style from what Kachka calls the “gorgeous, Jamesian prose . . . meditative, circuitous” of her first two novels (When the World Was Steady and The Last Life) to the “short chapters and quipy sentences” of Messud’s bestseller, The Emperor’s Children. According to Messud, “I had a memory span about as long as the lines in a school play” when she wrote The Emperor’s Children, then the mother of a young infant. That Messud’s style morphed from one regulated by complex, self-organizing units of thought to one contingent upon the demands of the external world represents a creative adaptation. If, indeed, contingency in Messud’s case took the form of an infant rather than, say, chapter length dictated by the kind of serialization that shaped the novels of Dostoevsky, Dickens and other 19th century writers, Messud’s newly concise writing was well suited to her third novel.  

Designated Timeline
Diverting Storyline

The 67 mostly short chapters of The Emperor’s Children are dispersed over five sections of the book, titled: March, May, July, September, November. The five calendar sections of the novel span a seven-month run-up to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and a coda: the near-term aftermath, just as the shock of the attacks has begun to wear off. In her November coda, the author, much like Tolstoy in the First Epilogue to War and Peace, ties up some loose ends in her characters’ lives, and leaves others untied, indicating how fictional lives can seem to cross over into the realm of lived life – how a novel can exceed the bounds of art. The reader, then, apprized of the month and year at the outset, does not have the same excuse as Messud’s characters, of not knowing what is coming. Yet it is surprisingly easy to become absorbed in the storyline and forget about the timeline. For there is more to this narrative than aphoristic sentences.  

Claire Messud’s tightly structured novel The Emperor’s Children is similar in its architecture to Robert Musil’s classic work The Man Without Qualities (Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften), a literary influence given a nod by Messud in a chapter title and used to develop the alter ego of a key character. Messud’s 21st century novel, like its 20th century model, conjoins an end-of-an-era milieu to a comic but hiatal mood. This tone of latency informs the manifold activity that surrounds the novel’s characters and belies the raw sense in which they feel their lives to be mysteriously on hold. Messud’s comedy of manners tale is articulated by an intricate plotting of characters’ relationships, and of intrigue surrounding the ideas and ambitions of  a slice of America’s cozy East Coast intelligentsia. The plotting of the novel’s storylines is just intricate enough to entice readers into losing themselves along the highways and by-ways of Messud’s sparkling social microcosm. Here the author strikes just the right balance, offering a narrative neither too intricate in an inward-looking way, nor so complicated in its imitation of reality, and fashioning of a diverting scene, as to confuse. To plot is to divert, and the author’s deft plotting has the same diversionary effect as the narrator’s engaging –– and entertaining –– persona.

The Emperor’s Children is shrewdly observed, its exposition lighthearted. Equal parts wit, charm, and sophistication, this millennial tale provides the reader with the satisfaction of viewing human folly from a superior vantage point, as well as the almost voyeuristic pleasure of initiation into an elite circle of talents. What then is the substance behind the novel’s charm? For this generously laid out tale is as charming as can be. Indeed, it is one of the challenges of reading this book to finally distinguish the authorial voice, inflected as it is with wit and sophistication, from that of Messud’s mostly charming characters.

A Charming Tale’s Wending
A Catastrophic Ending

Substantive conundrums are supplied in part through the author’s rendering of a generation now past the rite of graduation, if not of marriage, tentatively making the transition to adulthood in the shadow of New York enterprise, still at full throttle, and a burned-out New England respectability and New Left ideology. Claire Messud’s psychologically trenchant treatment of related Oedipal themes would more than suffice in the creation of a novel of minutely observed social realism, but her purpose lies elsewhere. For all: stories of love fulfilled, love lost, and love betrayed, the novel of ideas, the saga of a generation, all is set adrift in the direction of a historical watershed. In this too, The Emperor’s Children shares an affinity with The Man Without Qualities. The rudderless society exposed in Musil’s acerbic fiction is blissfully unaware of the looming cataclysm of the First World War, just as Messud’s just-thirty generation drifts unaware of the impending terrorist attack of September 11.

There are further affinities between the two novels. Musil’s protagonist, Ulrich, joins a “Collateral Campaign” in search of a Great Idea to celebrate Austro-Hungarian unity and 70 years of Emperor Franz Joseph’s rule. Alas, there is no Great Idea to guide the Austrians, just as there is no Austro-Hungarian unity in 1918. This absence of original, rigorous thought amongst the Viennese intelligentsia finds its echo in Messud’s novel in the Emperor Murray’s illusory status as a leading thinker. That Murray’s intellectual bankruptcy is to be the inheritance of the next generation is spelled out in the title of his daughter Marina’s book: The Emperor’s Children Have No Clothes.

Influence without Anxiety

Clare Messud doesn’t play around with subtexts, and indeed, her intelligent characters freely reference her literary influences in their conversations. There are then two key literary texts in The Emperor’s Children: Tolstoy’s War and Peace, in addition to Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. Both texts are overtly and frequently referenced, tipping off the reader as to the novel’s genealogy and literary-historical context with no apparent anxiety of influence. The two texts do not play the same role in this contemporary work of fiction, however. While War and Peace is playfully incorporated, its characters Pierre and Natasha the subject of conversational banter about love and marriage, Musil’s novel has a more pervasive influence – on the novel’s structure, themes, and character development. Ulrich, Musil’s protagonist, thus becomes the namesake of one of Messud’s characters who, amidst the chaos of September 11, decides to take on a new identity.

However reflexive the game of comparisons between Julius’ love life and the roles of Pierre and Natasha, Tolstoy’s world remains remote in its innocence. Indeed, Messud’s characters are better suited to the decadent world of Musil’s salons than they are to the familiar trope of Tolstoyan authenticity, representative of a world which Julius, Marina and Danielle make more homely by their habit of reading Pierre and Natasha into their lives. Tolstoy’s characters are un-self-conscious in a way that Messud’s Gen-X vanguard could never be. The characters of War and Peace have no literary or other cultural models who mediate their aspirations and behavior. Thus Tolstoy’s Natasha is shocked and repelled by the artifice of the theater, while Musil’s Clarisse plays Wagner under the  influence of a self-image mediated by Romanticism.

Duplicitous Charm of the Storyteller

Claire Messud’s narrative voice bears some aspects of just-turned-thirty Marina’s voice. Marina is all charm, intellect, and beauty. Appearing at Awards Night, on which her father Murray is feted, in a dress of diaphanous blue, she dazzles the men in her circle. However, charm is a fragile thing. Thus Murray’s view of his adored daughter is summarized as follows: “He was, in many ways, extremely proud of her – not least of her beauty, which was, to him, each time a surprise, as though unwittingly he had thrown a perfect pot…” (p.88); “She was so lovely, and so charming, but she had been these things for a long time… not as bright, perhaps, as her friend Danielle” (p.89); “Even that student at Columbia – what was her name? Anne, Maryanne, Roanne, that was it – even she had surely not been so naïve, and ten years younger too.” (p.91)

Messud’s authorial voice, it could be said, displays the charm of two of her least self-aware characters, Marina and Julius. Julius’ charm is at the core of his friendships with Marina and Danielle and of his career as a writer. Danielle thinks of Julius: “Since forever he had been, in his funny, intermittent way, a gold strand in the dull fabric of her days.” (p.114) Yet for some in Julius’ circle, his charm, by the time the novel’s exposition is finished, is beginning to wear thin. As he avoids sustained effort at work, he sparkles less and less at review writing for the Village Voice. Like Marina he finds it difficult to locate his true self, which becomes further obscured in a dependent relationship. Soon even Marina says of Julius: “It’s like his soul is evaporating.” (p.242)

It is their charm that makes Marina and Julius vulnerable –– to self-deception and to disappointing others. Yet this charm has real value; to riff on Messud’s image, it weaves like a golden strand through the lives of others, opening their eyes to the possibility of beauty and love. In this voice of light-hearted charm, Messud charts her story arc from March through July of 2001, lulling the reader into absorption in tales of the drifting of a generation. In the September–November portions of the novel, the narrative gradually sheds its charm in favor of a dark irony and darker prognosticating. These mutations in the narrative voice work because animating the storyteller’s charisma is the true mind of the author, orchestrating, holding all the threads of plot and subplot. Thus does Messud almost imperceptibly reposition a brilliant comic spectacle in the shadow of the sudden catastrophic loss of September 11, 2001.

Tragic Turnabout

How does the author of The Emperor’s Children modulate the narrator’s voice, transporting comedy into the thick shadows of tragedy, and edging it away from the shadows once again? Messud achieves this turnabout by developing her use of irony in the last quarter of the novel, and by merging her voice, across a range of shifting viewpoints, with the voices of the novel’s most authentic, authoritative characters. Through the use of point of view and free indirect style in chapters 47, 53, 58, 62, and especially 65, 66, and 67: three chapters representing the viewpoints of Murray, Danielle,  and Ulrich (Bootie), Messud re-defines narrative voice as the instrument that parlays mirth and gravitas alike into broad patterns of sense and symbolism. In addition to modulating the narrator’s voice in certain specific ways, Messud stages the confrontation between comedy and tragedy by re-aligning the novel’s key characters. The author effects this realignment by interrogating her characters’ integrity in the new post-9/11 world. The advent of terrorism in New York exposes the core of strong and weak characters alike, tests some relationships, abruptly sunders others, and ultimately heightens the clarity of an inclusive vision of humanity in contrast to the partial understandings that arise from the self-deception and narrow self-interest of individual characters.

Irony Illuminates a Darkening World

Although the author uses irony throughout the novel, the nature of that irony changes as the timeline crosses over from March–July into September–November. At the beginning of the story, irony, an aspect of style, enhances the mystique and the attractiveness of Australian enfant terrible Ludovic Seeley; Danielle notes that his “his dark hair, so closely shaven as to allow the blue of his scalp to shine through, emphasized both his irony and his restraint.” (p. 6) Further along in the novel, the unraveling of Julius’ and David’s romantic bond takes place just before 9/11, according to an especially grimy scenario in a chapter ironically entitled “A Night on the Town.” Typical of the dark irony of the last quarter of the novel is the elder-statesman-like musing of Murray regarding the uses and abuses of his rivalrous nephew’s presumed death near ground zero: “[He] couldn’t help being aware of the irony that Bootie’s death had granted him greater nobility. . . And as for the book: it waited. . . Who knew, perhaps he would dedicate the book to his nephew.” (pp. 557-558) This would be irony sufficiently dark, considering Murray’s purported role in his nephew’s demise (failing Bootie as a mentor, kicking him out of the familial home), except that the author has placed Murray’s perfidy inside a kind of trick mirror that only author and reader can see. Therefore the irony of which Murray is so keenly aware is matched by a larger irony of which he is wholly ignorant: his nephew is alive and well, living under an assumed name, in Miami.

Integrity at the Core: Authentic Voice, Authentic Characters

Just as the September section of the novel opens and closes with chapters about Bootie, so the novel itself opens and closes – or at least reaches its penultimate chapter – with scenes featuring Danielle, heart, mind and astute soul. Bootie and Danielle, in contradistinction to Julius and Marina – are two of Messud’s most self-aware characters. Subject to temporary love madness they may be, but Bootie and Danielle are also capable of being awakened to life’s meaning, and to a sense of purpose that surpasses self-interest. As avatars of truth, bitter truth, their viewpoints are frequently conveyed, their views consulted, and their persistent, sometimes benighted questing represented by the author. Danielle and Bootie are characters with authority, albeit hard won, and when they are at the center of the story, the charm of the storyteller becomes the authority of the author.

Murray Thwaite is also an authoritative character. The unexpected development of Murray’s viewpoint in Chapter 65 (“Burying the Dead (3)”), in a passage that fluctuates between omniscient author and internal monologue, revisiting Murray’s recollections of the morning of September 11, is striking evidence of the degree to which the author gains in authority by imagining this particular character’s response to the trauma of personal and collective loss.

The integrity of the Murray of Chapter 65 is evident in the fact that the quality of his personal recollections is so very different from the quality of his commentary as a pundit. In addition, the relative authenticity of Murray’s assessment of the immediate past is emphasized by the placement of Murray’s Chapter 65 after Judy’s Chapter 63 (“Burying the Dead (1)”), which relates the thoughts of Bootie’s mother, and Marina’s Chapter 64 (“Burying the Dead (2)”), which relates his daughter’s preoccupations. Thus Judy, completely unable to disentangle her personal grief from the collective meaning of the tragedy, is locked into an obsessive cycle of blame and recrimination. Marina, newly wed and intensively focused on the vicissitudes of her husband’s career since September 11, finds it difficult to contemplate anything more serious than Julius’ recently acquired scar.

The resilience, the vitality of Murray, (with whose conundrums we are all too familiar by the delivery of his Chapter 65 ‘monologue’), his complex nature, is brilliantly manifest in his destiny as a character, for his purpose far exceeds the generous allotment of satire to which he is subject throughout the narrative. As punishment for his role in Bootie’s presumed death, Murray is not invited by his sister to speak at his nephew’s memorial. In the world of metafiction, however, Murray is deemed worthy of redemption. Thus he is ‘invited’ by the author, his creator, to deliver one of the keynotes of the November coda, of which every chapter but the last bears the title: Burying the Dead.  Messud’s Chapter 65 speaker (ruminator, indeed), whose voice blends at times with the author’s, is partly chastened. Murray's very American motto: “More life, more” has led him to the verge of commitment to his passions, only to be jettisoned when, in the face of the imploding Twin Towers, Murray quickly scuttles back to the security of his marriage. That Murray’s chastening is only partial can be seen in the resurgence, after the terrorist attack, of the desire for “more” – perhaps not more experience this time, perhaps not more youth – but ‘more fame, more’. As America goes shopping, Murray takes advantage of every opportunity to expedite the return of his currency with the public.

A Keynote Speaker  

In what sense then do Murray’s free associative thoughts in Chapter 65 constitute a keynote on the meaning of the 9/11 crisis, viewed in its proximate aftermath? Called upon by the public to make sense of the crisis, Murray formulates ‘a reasoned middle ground’ in his explanation of the attacks. Murray’s official post-9/11 role in the story is that of pundit, but should he be our pundit? Put in another way, why should the aging New Left journalist, last seen abruptly decamping from a love-nest with a view of the disintegrating Towers, be one of the characters we attend to as having some authority? Why should we parse his words for disclosure of some part of the author’s wisdom, this near the close of the novel?

Throughout the novel, Murray appears as speaker and spokesman. We first meet him in March giving a guest talk about the sixties at a Columbia seminar, where the journalist is interviewed by a budding reporter to whom he later – unfavorably – compares his daughter. The title of Chapter 57, “A Speaking Engagement,” ironically refers to Murray’s cover story, in September, for his liaison with his daughter’s friend. Now, in November,  the journalist is back in favor with the public due in part to his association with 9/11 victim Bootie: he has become a spokesman with family cred on the topic of the hour. Yet in none of these speaking roles is Murray authentic.

In the Face of Death, More Life, Always, More’

Claire Messud uses the motif: Murray’s private motto “More life, more,” to chart the development, and maybe a bit of transformation, in Murray’s character. In the beginning, and consistently throughout the novel, “More life, more” expresses Murray’s wanting what he wants, an avidity that peaks at the point when he stages an elaborate charade to spend the night with Danielle. Yet in the space of a few pages at story’s end, Murray’s hedonism has become stoicism, and “More life, more” has become an affirmation of life over death.With that stoicism, Murray gains authority.

What I have been referring to as Murray’s keynote takes place towards the end of Chapter 65,in the description beginning with, “The church, St. Paul’s downtown, the church of his childhood, so gratefully fled…was much fuller than he had expected.”  Murray’s reflections earlier in the chapter don’t resonate with anything like authority: as with Messud’s other main characters, his understanding of 9/11 is entangled with his personal ambitions, losses, and resentments. Murray’s imagining of Bootie’s death, and his attribution of its meaning, is badly flawed – not only due to misinformation, but to Murray’s self-involved view of Bootie’s potential. Yet Murray’s authority does become apparent in the final moments of his internal self-talking.

 Not a speech, not really even an interior monologue, this last expression of Murray’s voice through free indirect style blends with the voice of the author. Sitting in the church pews, Murray has a vision of the stasis of Watertown, and of the passage of time. Talk of keeping his nephew’s spirit alive fills him with dismay: Bootie was “an embryo. A bean. It made no sense.” Rather than experience the advance of age in a Proustian way – as the fall from a height of a man on stilts – Murray is also dismayed to discover, amidst familiar figures from childhood, now stricken, decrepit: “his whole past…like a box unopened for forty-five years.”

Catalyzed by the shock of finding his childhood still intact, Murray, recalling “the need to flee this hideous safety” realizes that he and Bootie are the same. For a moment he is both of them: “they were one soul.” Unusually for Murray, he feels a true kinship with the residents of Watertown, which he imagines as the entity all have gathered to bury.

  It is this stasis of childhood, this weird past with its non-moving parts and moribund essence, that inspires Murray’s fantasy that Watertown itself is being buried. It is in answer to this fantasy of burying Watertown that he affirms the inner drive for movement, change – for escape to the wider world: “in the face of death, more life, always, more.”

Finally, Murray has authority to the degree that he can confer authority. Before his nephew’s memorial service, Murray sees his daughter’s closest friend thus:

Julius, peculiar-looking always, but now positively bizarre, with the bald patch at his hairline, from which new tufting sprouted, and the raw mangle of his cheek, a pirate’s scar on his boyish face. In this strangeness, he had gelled his hair like a porcupine, but Murray refrained from comment because he thought that at thirty, for all they might seem it, Marina’s friends could no longer be treated as children.

Spotting Julius at the close of Bootie’s memorial, Murray first sees “the newly ghoulish Julius” as a ridiculous and grotesque figure strolling among the graves; but Julius, seen suddenly from behind, appears as a figure of stature and consequence:

Like a tourist he was, like a tourist visiting death. Julius’s scarred face was frightening, and his hair looked ridiculous, with its glistening quills, but his long navy cloth coat was rather fine, and at least from behind, gave him an official aspect. Perhaps, then, a representative, sent to the funeral in lieu. In lieu of Ludovic, obviously, but of something more, too. They were all representatives, and tourists, from another world. They could be known simply by their coats.

Unless you think “from another world” is a reference to space aliens, Murray’s vision of “representatives….from another world,” while it falls short of passing the mantle, stands as an affirmation by a representative of the established generation, of the strange-seeming but real authority of the coming generation of observers and ruminators – and perhaps, doers. Seeing Julius through Murray’s re-educated eyes, we no longer see a butterfly, but a man of gravitas. Seeing Murray seeing Julius, we see the subtle maturation of two characters simultaneously.

Is Murray’s authority finally compromised? While the authority of Bootie and Danielle arises from their self-awareness and authenticity, Murray’s authority derives from a self-awareness that survives despite his egotism, grandiosity, and frequent self-deception. But in the moment that his consciousness becomes the novel’s vehicle for insight, this character’s flaws seem no longer to matter. The rules have changed.

From Realism to Photorealism

In the November part of the novel’s story arc, the author plays a variation on her technique of creating ever-denser layers of reality within the novel. In a flashback in the third Burying the Dead chapter (Chapter 65), when Murray returns home on the day of  September 11, something that is “real,” in the logic of plot and character development  – the aftermath of Murray’s affair – is instantly displaced by something “more real.” More real is the fact that the boy DeVaughn’s mother is missing, and indeed, she does turn out to have died in the North Tower where she worked on the hundred and first floor. Aware that Murray’s ‘return’ that day from a conference in Chicago is suspect, Annabel is nevertheless grateful for his presence, and otherwise completely preoccupied with the crisis surrounding the fourteen year-old boy whom she has taken under her wing.

Displacement drives the action of the post-catastrophe world as, for one character after another, the “something real” of life before terrorism is replaced by the “something more real” of life after the compounding of loss. For Judy, the reality of losing Bootie to New York is displaced by the cruel delineations of hyper-reality: a child lost to the randomness of fate. For Danielle, the reality of her double life is displaced by the more painful and concentrated reality of solitude and a breakdown. Marina’s fate is linked to that of Ludo, for whom the reality of his planned cultural coup is displaced by the reality of having no role to play on the American scene. 

For Julius, changed in fact by a personal experience of mayhem, the reality of unscathed innocence is displaced by a new countenance offering the opportunity of transformation ‘from the outside in.’ This is realism beyond classic realism, a realism that imitates a new concept of reality.  Classic realism holds a mirror up to nature. As 19th century writer Stendhal put it: “A novel is a mirror carried along a highway.” We, the readers, look in the mirror and see reality reflected, a framed picture. But it is only over time that Julius, seeing himself reflected in the mirror of other people’s eyes, will come to know his new social self. As readers of Julius’ story, we see, not a mirror held up to nature, but a mirror held up to human nature. We see a process of self-knowledge that occurs incrementally as the individual sees himself reflected again and again by society. Confronted with daily reminders of the damage done to the victims, the Towers, the City, the skyline – will New York be changed from the outside in? Will America?

 For Bootie especially, the reality of the past – in fact his entire past of aspiration, frustration, disappointment – is displaced by the surreal project of starting a new life. Here is the realism of a plausible universe in which a man without qualities waits tables in Miami while Bootie’s funeral is held in Watertown. And because this isn’t the innocent America of Tom Sawyer, Bootie doesn’t show up at his own funeral, even as a semblance of himself

The characters’ new psychological situation is one in which the rules are suddenly changed. Priorities must be reconsidered. The characters who understand this: Annabel, Murray, Julius, and above all Bootie, fare far better than the characters who do not: Marina's Australian husband Ludovic Seeley: consumed by bitterness over the now inevitable failure of his journal, The Monitor; Danielle: overcome by heartbreak at the sudden departure of her lover; and Judy: overcome by a deeply personalized grief at the loss of son Frederick (Bootie), purportedly in the terrorist attacks.

Annabel, professionally caring and concerned with social justice, doesn’t miss a beat, immediately grasping how profoundly collective loss has changed everyone’s lives. At the other extreme is the self-serving Ludo. Railing at the proliferation of Missing Persons posters and the denial implicit therein as a particularly American reaction: always wanting a happy ending, Ludo is out of touch with the emotional reality of the situation and badly off-cue. As mistimed as the launch of his journal, Ludo’s rant misses the mark, his observations not so much wrong, as irrelevant. Among the shell-shocked survivors, no one but Marina is listening now.

Bootie instinctively grasps the situation, especially in terms of what it means for him. Everything is changed: very well, Bootie concludes, in a genuinely American reaction to crisis: that means a clean slate. For Bootie, it means a breakthrough; the opportunity to reinvent himself.

One of Messud’s wiser characters, Danielle, while initially too traumatized to look beyond the personal loss that coincides with 9/11, eventually reaches a deeper understanding of herself in relation to Marina, to Murray, to the Thwaites as a family, and at the end of the line, to Bootie. Finally, Danielle accepts her mother Randy, previously such a social embarrassment.

What about the new rules for writing fiction? Again, many writers miss the mark. Portraits of a terrorist written shortly before and just after the September attacks (John Updike, Philip Roth) are often derived from re-worked themes from these authors’ archives. Thus Roth dissects suburbia and the fixation on adolescent icons, pairing a sports hero and a beauty queen in American Pastoral (1997) as the unsuspecting parents of a terrorist. Critical analysis of society (Aravind Adiga: White Tiger; Mohsin Hamid: The Reluctant Fundamentalist) as the seedbed of terrorism is often insightful, but in too narrow a way. The best post-9/11 literature (Tash Aw, Map of the Invisible World; Janet Turner Hospital, Orpheus Lost; Salman Rushdie, Shalimar the Clown) is complex in its vision, often international in scope, and uses a focused realism and layered narrative to get to the root of the problem.

The Emperor’s Children perhaps of all post-9/11 novels does the best job of portraying American society – or a vital sector of American society –– just prior to the attacks, as well as showing the beginnings of the process by which the attacks force a previously jejeune people abruptly to come to terms with their radically changed world.      


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