You've really got to worry about a novel when a *favourable* reviewer describes the plot's two main set pieces and one of them is when the cat dies. [The Economist, 19 Aug 2006.] Before getting into that, however, try this sample sentence for size:
"He remembered his father's telling him - his father, small as he was himself tall, with sloping shoulders off which Murray feared, as a child, the braces might slip, a bow-tied little man with an almost Hitlerian mustache, softened from menace by its grayness, and by the softness, insidious softness, of his quiet voice, a softness that belied his rigidity and tireless industry, his humorless and ultimately charmless 'goodness' (Why had she married him? She'd been so beautiful, and such fun) - telling him, as he deliberated on his path at Harvard, to choose accounting, or economics, saying, with that dreaded certainty, 'You see, Murray, I know you want to go out and write books or something like that. But only geniuses can be writers, Murray, and frankly son ...'"
See what I mean about size? Reviewers have already complained about the author's self-interrupting, drunkenly digressive prose style. They are entirely correct to do so. Claire Messud's book is festooned with sentences which are essentially motorway pile-ups of sub-clauses, codicils and parenthetical interpolations. Such a rookie mistake - which makes for hopelessly cumbersome reading - should never have made it past the editor.
The Emperor's Children concerns the lives of Danielle, Marina and Julius, three thirtysomething New York literati and their patriarch, the essayist Murray Thwaite, Marina's father. Onto this scene arrive two more brains: Ludovic Seeley is a viperish and talented journalist from Australia who has come to NY to launch a new magazine; and Bootie Tubb is Thwaite's bookish college-drop-out nephew, who has taken up residence (and employment) at his uncle's home. In summary, all six of Ms. Messud's characters are part of a literary intelligentsia. So she's a writer writing about writers. Which is what bad writers shorn of ideas always do (think Stephen King). With such lack of variety among its dramatis personae, one is left to wonder how the book's jacket can make the breathtaking claim to be about 'the way we live in this moment'. Does Ms. Messud presume that the ruminations of six Manhattanites parked in front of their word processors will have something to say to ambulance drivers? Surfers? Teenagers? I like to write occasionally, and even I quickly grew tired of these navel-gazers. Perhaps the cruel joke Ms. Messud has played on herself is that only self-absorbed people presume that all others are like them, and will therefore relate to self-absorbed characters.
Anyway, the praxis of the book is set in motion by nothing more original than Seeley's aim to expose Thwaite as an intellectual fraud of some sort. Once this rather abstract goal is announced, nothing at all happens. We sit around for several hundred pages awaiting the unmasking. It never happens. (The cat has died some time before, its passing memorialised with an entire chapter.) The life of the mind is an indolent one, and so the time must thus be passed with sex. Danielle has an affair with Seeley; Seeley has an affair with Marina; and - ridiculously - Thwaite has an affair with Danielle. Ms. Messud also finds time to go into the details of Julius's gay love life with tiresomely squeamish prurience - beneath the willfully nonchalant prose one can sense a novelist delighted by her own daring.
There are silly mistakes. Since Bootie quickly becomes disillusioned with his uncle and correspondingly determined to expose him, he essentially clones Seeley's role: the reader is now left wondering why we now have two characters doing the same thing. As for Seeley himself, he inexplicably marries the daughter of the man he wants to destroy - a bit socially awkward, that. If Bootie is so precociously well-read, why does he seem surprised to discover that Ireland is divided? But perhaps his ignorance reflects that of his creator, who incorrectly informs us that Ireland has 'a border in the middle' [p. 186]. (The border is in the north-east corner, partitions off only one-fifth of the island, and never reaches the west coast.) Messud writes that Thwaite 'blew smoke though his nose like a dragon' [p. 305], forgetting that this is now her third time using that expression.
There's intellectual spivvery. So much literary name-dropping goes on, but it all consists of obvious choices. Situations are repeatedly described as 'Beckettian'; Bootie is reading Tolstoy, Melville and Emerson ... but there's nothing in these references to indicate that Messud has done any more that *hear about* these writers. It's all paper-thin. And the ambitious Seeley's inspiration is ... Napoleon.
Suddenly, September 11 irrupts into the plot. Our flawed-but-lovable characters respond in their various ways: Seeley grieves copiously for the new magazine he was about to launch but now never will; Thwaite's wife gets her hair done; Bootie changes his name to an even sillier one and inexplicably disappears (and not before time, some readers might may say). So if this intrusion of a harsh and savage reality has no effect on our characters, why was it mentioned at all? To rob from real life a luridly exciting climax that the author hadn't the talent to create herself?
It's plain from the 'way we live now' claim that the book is trying to boldly capture the Zeitgeist, but the entire plot takes place in the minds of its characters, and the space in which they move is thus correspondingly constricted. The novel feels not so much like it's taking place in an era as in one rather stuffy, overpriced apartment.
I have found that there is a yawning gulf of difference between the public response to this book and the critical one. A while back I listened to two members of the New York literary intelligentsia (Stephen Metcalf, Katie Roiphe) being interviewed about the novel on Slate. Surprise, surprise: they both liked it. Metcalf even did some name-dropping of his own: Edith Wharton, Zadie Smith, David Lodge we all parachuted in. But even the comparisons he meant unkindly were too flattering.
Thus the literati peer deeply into the Emperor's Children's subtext, apparently unable to say the plain truth currently being howled by readers in general (and there for all to see): the book is a poor read and it has little to say.