The jacket copy of Claire Messud’s new novel, as self-consciously and sentimentally attached to the city of New York as a copy of the New Yorker, mentions Edith Wharton, Dawn Powell, Truman Capote and Jay McInerney. Readers on this side of the Atlantic will probably be more enthused by the quote from Anthony Powell’s Books Do Furnish a Room that serves as the book’s epigraph. This is General Conyers’s remark – in some sense the cornerstone to the twelve volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time – to the effect that if you can preserve your ‘personal myth’, nothing much else in life matters. ‘It is not what happens to people that is significant, but what they think happens to them.’
The Emperor’s Children, as gracefully and reliably written as anything to which Messud has put her hand, is full of people zealously burnishing their sense of personal destiny, seeing the world as a horizon waiting only for the impress of their authenticating spoor. Chief among these self-mythologisers is sixty-year-old Murray Thwaite, a dazzling archetype of all those ageing American Liberals who found political awareness in the age of Kennedy, had it sharpened by Vietnam and the Sixties Civil Rights agitation, and over the next three and a half decades – the novel is set in early 2001 – lined up on the right side of the barricade in defence of any good brave cause you care to mention.
Pundit, columnist, talk-show habitué and orotund conversationalist, Murray has an unpublished masterpiece – the humbly titled How to Live – lurking in his study drawer. In the shadow of this ghostly ethical primer a whole host of personal relationships gradually unwind. To Murray’s slipstream clings a younger and somehow less purposeful generation – his daughter Marina, her best friend Danielle and their mutual chum Julius – all pushing thirty, none having accomplished anything remarkable, and each rather reminiscent of the character in the Steely Dan song ‘What a shame about me’ who is ‘wondering about the future, thinking maybe this is it’. Danielle makes right-on TV documentaries. Julius writes smart-boy book reviews when not immersing himself in gay Manhattan nightlife. Marina, commissioned to write a sexy egghead book about children’s fashion in her early twenties, has been dawdling away on the project for the last seven years.
Into this hive of – let us be honest – considerable self-absorption and complacency (Murray, in particular, skewers himself with every other utterance) wander two catalyst outsiders: Ludovic, editor of a new satirical magazine, The Monitor; and ‘Bootie’ (real name Fred Tubbs), Murray’s owlishly likeable nephew, who has thrown over his college studies in disgust and hankers for a real education at the feet of classic novels. Ludovic, though shaping up to marry Marina, regards his prospective father-in-law as a bombastic old fraud. Hero-worshipping Bootie, on the other hand, charitably taken on as Murray’s secretary and party to the fatuities of How to Live, is aghast to discover his idol’s feet of clay and writes a withering exposé for Ludovic’s debut issue. Relations between father and daughter are further strained by Murray’s low opinion of Marina’s book.
All this, as the attentive reader will have inferred, takes place in advance of the destruction of the Twin Towers, an event whose consequences for fiction are only just beginning to be appreciated. Alec Waugh once pointed out that the Great War redirected the paths of British fiction for nearly ten years. In any book commencing in the period 1910–14 the reader instantly knew that, whatever the convolutions of the plot, all the characters’ lives would be thrown into turmoil by the outbreak of hostilities. Exactly the same extraneous pressure now affects the modern American novel. Messud gets round what for most of her contemporaries has become a grave impediment by not allowing herself to be overcome by 9/11 – without ever down-playing its horror – while quietly using it as a lever by which to shift the various strands of her narrative onto a slightly different track.
Full of good scenes – a marvellous moment or two in which Murray’s kindly wife Annabel finds Bootie lurking unexpectedly in the family home, is first annoyed and then takes pity on him – and odd bits of over-writing (this is the kind of book in which people have ‘vulpine incisors’ rather than sharp teeth and go about ‘unshod’ rather than ‘shoeless’), the novel advertises its metaphorical significance from one page to the next. Any remaining doubts about what may be going on are extinguished by the title of Marina’s book: The Emperor’s New Clothes. What remains, in the end, is one of those peculiarly American – East Coast American – exercises in the higher sensibility, full of sharp little Bostonian judgments. A particularly revealing, though incidental, sentence comes when Murray, lunching his daughter to explain why he dislikes her book, is glad-handed by ‘a talk-radio fellow, a handsome but minor man in his forties with a voice like a butter knife and a shirt the colour of the Mediterranean’. Wrong of me, I know, but I wondered suddenly whether this minor barnacle on the darkening prow of SS Highbrow Manhattan might not be fully as interesting as big-hearted Murray and his satellites. While neatly done, and keeping up its narrative line to the end, The Emperor’s Children is, nevertheless, slightly undemanding.