A couple of years ago I read Claire Messud’s second novel The Last Life. Told in the first person voice of a young woman named Sagesse LaBasse, it chronicles the lives of three generations of a French-Algerian family which left Algeria in the upheavals of the 1950s to settle in the south of France. It is a family that guards its secrets and whose defense against the world is a closely enforced mythology. Messud’s work was new to me and I found her writing intelligent and graceful, her storytelling hypnotic.
In The Emperor’s Children, her 2006 novel set in Manhattan, Messud fuses her mesmerizing, syntactically complex, sense of narrative with the au courant readability of a dark comedy of manners among a group of 30-something glitterati in the months preceding September 11, 2001. It interlaces the stories of Danielle Minkoff, Marina Thwaite, and Julius Clarke, who met at Brown University and came to New York in the early 1990’s. All of them expected to do something important and, at 30, all are still struggling to make something of themselves. Marina, a “celebrated” beauty, is drifting two or three years beyond her publisher’s advance on a book that is to consider how children’s fashions reflect “complex and profound truths” about society. Danielle has a job as a producer of television documentaries, but despite her aspirations for serious material finds herself doing garish stories about liposuction. Julius is a gay half-Vietnamese transplant from Michigan, a social gadabout and sometime freelance critic who is flailing desperately to make good on his collegiate precocity. Among other significant characters are Marina’s father, the legendary journalist and liberal pundit Murray Thwaite, and Ludovic Seeley, a Machiavellian climber from Australia intent on launching an iconoclastic magazine determined to embody postmodernism and its assumption that all truths are ephemeral or fungible or both.
When Murray’s hapless nephew—Frederick Tubb, known as Bootie—a rather flabby 20-year-old (both physically and mentally) flees his drab existence in Watertown, N.Y., and becomes his uncle’s secretary, the novel’s artful examination of the gap between the real and the perceived and of a commodified culture in which individualism is equated with “branding”, becomes simultaneously more satirical and more realistically grounded. The characters’ concerns—grave, trivial, expansive, petty—move unknowingly and inexorably toward 9/11 even as the reader’s empathies and discernments escalate. Messud’s writing is sinuous but exacting: her narrative style is a sort of Jamesian long game leavened with the shrewdness of Edith Wharton and the rueful ironic comedy of E.M. Forster yet it is quintessentially early 21st Century.
Another aspect of The Emperor’s Chidren distinction is that this insightful and engaging portrayal of American culture isn’t actually an American novel. Messud’s perspective and tone evince the candid bemusement of someone who lacks a native’s attachment. (Though she was born in Greenwich, Connecticut, her mother was Canadian and her father Algerian French, and she grew up in Canada and Australia and was educated at Yale and the University of Cambridge.)
Her early works positioned the author as a “literary writer” to watch, and other writers did so; but with this 2006 novel—which was a NY Times bestseller and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize—Claire Messud attained wider recognition and larger sales, and this change in status is well-deserved. Her characterizations and plotting are intricate but never contrived, she purveys evocative and telling details of various Manhattan milieus as well as settings in upstate New York and the Berkshires at no expense to a page-turning pace, and her observations of the fine particularities that inform both human intimacies and broad cultural sea-changes are at once imaginative and incisive.
– Hadley Hury