THE EMPEROR'S CHILDREN
By Claire Messud
Knopf. 431 pp. $25
We've all caught glimpses of them before, but Claire Messud has captured and pinned under glass members of a striking subspecies of the modern age: the smart, sophisticated, anxious young people who think of themselves as the cultural elite. Trained for greatness in the most prestigious universities, these shiny liberal arts graduates emerge with expensive tastes, the presumption of entitlement and no real economic prospects whatsoever. If you're one of them or if you can't resist the delicious pleasure of pitying them, you'll relish every page of The Emperor's Children .
The three wunderkinds at the center of Messud's engrossing satire are friends from Brown, strutting through life with élan but also with a sense of floundering that chafes at them like a new pair of Christian Louboutin shoes. Julius Clarke, a freelance critic for the Village Voice, is "aware that at thirty he stretched the limits of the charming wastrel, that some actual sustained endeavor might be in order were he not to fade, wisplike, away." Danielle Minkoff works as a producer of documentary films, but she's not having any luck selling her ideas (the Australian revolution? liposuction malpractice?). Marina Thwaite, the gorgeous daughter of a celebrity journalist, is one of the "it" girls of New York, but she's never actually done anything. A job, she tells her father, would "make me ordinary, like everybody else." For several years, she's maintained the illusion of purpose by procrastinating on a vacuous work of cultural criticism about the history of children's clothing. Having spent her advance and outlasted three editors, she's fallen into paralysis.
Yes, they're spoiled, they're self-absorbed, and they're whiny, but above all else they're irresistibly clever and endowed with the kind of hyper-analytical minds that make them fascinating critics of each other and themselves.
We join this flawlessly drawn triangle just before the arrival of Marina's flabby cousin, Bootie, from Watertown, N.Y., light years away from the glamour of Manhattan. Antisocial and self-righteous, Bootie has dropped out of college ("full of jabbering fools") to pursue his own program of reading and radical self-reliance. Having long admired Marina's famous father from afar, he drives to New York City to see him, clutching a copy of Emerson's essays. Messud has perfected a narrative voice that simultaneously reveals her characters' thoughts and mocks them. "Like Una in The Faerie Queene ," she writes, "Bootie, too, needed to discern the route to wisdom. He was, he decided, like a pilgrim in the old days, a pilgrim in search of knowledge."
Marina's father, Murray Thwaite, the regal figure around which all these characters orbit, is Messud's masterpiece. A journalist who's been skating on his reputation for decades, Murray is the quintessential public intellectual, the moral conscience of the age (a pompous old windbag and a serial adulterer). "Integrity is everything, it's all you've got" he tells a young journalism student he hopes to sleep with. "If you have a voice, a gift, you're morally bound to exploit it." He's burnt to such a crisp under Messud's laser wit that real-life windbags all over New York may want to keep their heads down till the smoke clears. Murray is only too eager to welcome Bootie into his home: "My amanuensis," he announces, "like Pound and Yeats." But Bootie, the pompous rube, is too naive, too childish to see his hero up close without suffering the kind of disillusionment that inspires vengeance.
Beneath the rich surface of this comedy of manners runs Messud's attention to "authenticity": its importance, its elusiveness and the myriad tricks of self-delusion we pursue to imagine we possess it in greater degree than our friends and family. Marina and her gang think they'll shake the world awake and then conquer it with their disruptive candor, but, smart as they are, they're too trapped in the bubble of their own vanity. Messud is that bold spectator in the crowd willing to shout out that the emperor has no clothes -- and neither do his children.
A number of gifted young people in New York will luxuriate in the masochistic pleasure of reading this novel. (Their indulgent parents -- skewered here, too -- may find it somewhat less enjoyable.) Messud's real audience, though, is broader, in the same way that Edith Wharton focused on a particularly rarefied class but spoke to any reader who could relish her piercing cultural commentary. For us, Messud's novel, so arch and elegantly phrased, is a chance to enter a world in which everything glistens with her wit, like waking to an early frost: refreshing, enchanting and deadly.
The disaster that concludes the novel isn't particularly surprising -- we're in New York City, 2001, after all -- and neither is the fact that these characters, except for Bootie, emerge from the terrorist assaults essentially unaffected. That may be Messud's most damning comment on these entitled young people. They're inert, suspended between great expectations and a desperate fear of failure. As the joys of adolescence grow more impossible to retain, adulthood presses on them like something terminal.
Late in the book Danielle wonders if growing up is "a process of growing away from mirth, as if, like an amphibian, one ceased to breathe in the same way: laughter, once vital sustenance, protean relief and all that made isolation and struggle and fear bearable was replaced by the stolid matter of stability. . . . Where there had been laughter, there came a cold breeze."
The most remarkable quality of Messud's writing may be its uncanny blend of maturity and mirth. Somehow, she can stand in that chilly wind blowing on us all and laugh. ·
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.