There is much to dislike in The Emperor's Children. Begin with the misguided concept: a realistic New York society novel, a highly conventional updating of Edith Wharton, that attempts to encompass the surreal, world-historical horror of the September 11 attacks. Only the greatest of novelists would have been able to pull this off, and Claire Messud is far from greatness. It is almost unnecessary to note that she fails. A tragic historical event that should have slammed into her text with enough deforming force to wrench it out of realism--at least temporarily--and make it something terribly new (literally, novel) is, despite the novelist's best efforts, almost trivialized into the climactic event of a book that too often reads like an extended episode of Sex and the City. (And to be clear, that last comparison is not a compliment.) Messud even goes so far as to exploit the September 11 attacks to create cheap dramatic irony and tawdry suspense, a pair of grave aesthetic offenses against taste and ethics. Granted, I'm not exactly Mr. Moral Fiction (he died on his donorcycle about 30 years ago, after a delightful little plagiarism scandal tarnished his rep), but I was disturbed by Messud's attempt to subsume the horror of the attacks into the form and techniques of traditional realistic fiction, as though the deaths of 3000 people can be considered simply more grist for the fictional mill. I'm not saying that the attacks should be considered off-limits to fiction. There are ways to write about unspeakable horror that do not tend to degrade or trivialize it: W. G. Sebald, Jorge Semprun, Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon, Toni Morrison, David Grossman and Primo Levi are a few writers who have found very different ways to do this. But these writers are Major League, and Messud doesn't even rate a try-out for the Toledo Mud Hens. Her prose is merely competent, her novel's form and tone are typical of its genre (the now highly conventionalized genre known as 'literary fiction') and some scenes descend perilously close to 'chick lit' cliche. The Emperor's Children is basically a middlebrow novel that wants desperately to be considered highbrow; it is a fiction written from and for what Curtis White called 'the middle mind.'
So why am I bothering to write about it?
Surprisingly (not least to me), despite my enormous reservations, I found the novel's characters complex enough and Messud's narrative skills engaging enough to keep me reading for all of her nearly 500 pages. In particular, the characterization of Frederick 'Bootie' Tubb is a marvelous portrait of a young man driven, for reasons that remain mysterious both to the reader and to his deluded self, to repeatedly sabotage his life. Whenever Bootie is on the cusp of any kind of success (as society defines the term), be it acceptance to Harvard, formal education, or his position as Murray Thwaite's secretary, he contrives to forge a mental monkey wrench and tosses it into his own works. At the novel's end, his self-destruction seems on the road to completion: he has taken advantage of the September 11 attacks to fake his death, escaped to Miami, and renamed himself after the central character of Musil's The Man Without Qualities. When last seen he is taking off into the American continent, chasing an unknown but likely dismal fate. He is easily Messud's most original and interesting creation; and he's also an archetypal American figure (and sees himself as such): the self-reliant, autodidactic loner grasping regeneration out of the bone-grinding violence of September 11. Messud's characterization of him constitutes her novel's most disturbing reflection on the psychopathology of American culture, a reflection her novel seems at pains to bury (like Frederick's symbolic body in the last section) beneath the predictable vapidity of the Thwaites' lives. Less Sarah Jessica Parker and more Robert Musil would have served this novel well.