Initially, The Emperor’s Children–Claire Messud’s superb comedy of manners following a sliver of New York’s literary beau monde before and after September 11–appears to be about aging Ivy Leaguers who can’t get no satisfaction. Three friends, once classmates at Brown, are now 30 and struggling (sort of). Beautiful, unemployed Marina Thwaite has moved back home with her parents to give “one last push” on a book on children’s clothes she’s been commissioned to write but can’t seem to finish. Whether the inertia is due to the inhibiting shadow of her world-famous journalist father, Murray Thwaite, or to lack of discipline, who can say? Danielle Minkoff has, unlike Marina, a job and an apartment, but her work producing TV documentaries is ever wanting in intellectual fulfillment, and she has no boyfriend with whom to share the small consolatory luxuries she allows herself, specifically her bed’s fine sheets. Completing the trio is Julius Clarke, a gay, bed-hopping freelance writer groping for stability in both work and love.
Within several chapters, the spell of Messud’s unerring, lissome prose is cast, and it becomes clear that we are in for far more than the exploits of a few bourgie Manhattanites fumbling with adulthood. The arrival of two outsiders–Ludovic Seeley, an unctuous Australian magazine editor intent on storming the New York literary scene, and Murray’s 19-year-old nephew, Bootie Tubb, a self-righteous and socially awkward autodidact painted with the antiheroic shades of Ignatius J. Reilly–unsettles and deepens the novel’s world, as it heads toward the more radical cataclysm of 9/11. But the story’s power lies not in what happens to these people but rather, as the book’s epigraph from Anthony Powell avers, in “what they think happens to them,” in the revelation of their carefully nurtured personal myths and what each has at stake in preserving them. As the narrative perspective shifts from character to character, we experience each one from up close and from afar, rounding them out, and subtly delineating the gulf between what they imagine they know of themselves and what we know of them. With Murray, perhaps the novel’s most marbled character, Messud renders this contradiction with exceptional nuance. When he seduces Danielle, the satirical punch isn’t that this pillar of “moral journalism” could act so immorally, it’s that someone who prides himself on both passion and plain speech could so tediously intellectualize screwing his daughter’s friend: “He reveled in the many-ness of it all, all the things he was, and was to her, Danielle–journalistic eminence, husband, father of her best friend, potential mentor, old and flailing body–all these things torn away by their mutual desire, that left him a mere stripling in this time-traveled ship, attended but unmolested by the ghosts of his selves.”
This–the characters’ consistency in getting themselves wrong–is what makes The Emperor’s Children so richly tragicomic. It’s also what puts Messud’s narrative gifts brilliantly on display. The two-time PEN/Faulkner finalist (and frequent contributor to The Nation‘s Books and Arts section) writes with the archness of a Muriel Spark, only more subtly and sympathetically wielded. Not even Danielle, who retains the most dignity throughout the novel, escapes gentle narrative derision where her self-delusions invite it. Ultimately, most impressive is the way Messud relates 9/11 to her characters’ lives: The public tragedy doesn’t eclipse but rather seeps into and amplifies their private sorrows. “Mostly,” Danielle reflects at the novel’s end, “people’s tragedies were small.” Whether she’s thinking about the botched liposuctions she’s researching for work or the fact that she will never have a real relationship with Murray is ambiguous; in a sense, it doesn’t matter. She has learned something indispensable about the nature of life’s tragedies: They don’t compete; they compound.