The Emperor’s Children is a novel about intellectuals that is not a novel of ideas. The three central characters are graduates of Brown from some time in the early 1990s, all English majors, all trying to make it as writers of one kind or another, living in New York in the months after George W. Bush was elected president. (The coyness of that sentence, in its allusions to chronology, are a reflection of the book.) Marina Thwaite is living off her parents’ money and halfheartedly trying to finish a contracted book on children’s fashions through the ages. Julius Clarke is a critic for venues like the Village Voice who makes just enough money to live hand to mouth in a decrepit downtown studio and party with more well-off people. Danielle Rankin is a television producer for a PBS affiliate. The latter two are from the Midwest; Marina was raised in Manhattan, the child of a famous columnist. Additional characters are her father, Murray Thwaite, and her cousin, Frederick (Bootie) Tubb. Bootie dropped out of Oswego after one semester, because he thought it was bullshit—he’d been accepted into Harvard but hid this fact from his family and teachers because he couldn’t afford it—and has decided to try to become educated anyway, somehow.
The Emperor’s Children is an ambitious book, and it fulfills those ambitions well. The story is compelling and the reader keeps turning the pages, not just from a kind of visceral suspense or a desire to see how events from the recent past, things with which the reader is already familiar, will be depicted, but because one begins to care about the characters, hopes their careers will be made and their affairs will turn out well. There’s a lot in it and none of it feels like fluff or filler, none of it feels boring or stupid, dull or pointless. I want to say, though, that it’s an ambitious, well- and literarily executed version of a kind of book I don’t much like to read (and that will appeal to readers who dislike social novels, women’s novels, or “mainstream” novels, generally, even less than to me). I’m happy to read a novel of ideas, or a book about intellectuals. I’m happy to read a well-observed novel of specific social types, of “the way we live now,” or issues of broader concern. The Emperor’s Children is not any of these things. It’s a kind of gossipy, realist novel about a very small slice of very rich or (it has to be said) privileged people, of well known types, focusing on a very narrow slice even of those people’s lives, and rigorously refusing itself the slightest commentary on or reaction to what it describes. The first part of the novel relies so heavily on descriptions of interior decoration for its characterization of its people and milieus that I was astonished. There is in fact a nice mix of dialogue and description—too much description for the reader who needs everything to be dramatized, but pretty much what you’d expect of a nicely traditional sort of novel—and the dialogue carried off well, without dramatization in real time for its own sake, oral infodumps, or questionable cleverness. There are overt allusions to War and Peace and Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities (neither of which I’ve yet read), so it’s quite plausible that The Emperor’s Children is being intentionally old-fashioned. But it feels, at its storytelling core, like an upscale version of a Jennifer Weiner novel, one in which the characters don’t act trashy, don’t talk mean about one another, and don’t obsess (too much) about their shoes—which is to say, like a women’s novel with the fun taken out.
As I mentioned, this is in many ways a novel about what it means to be an intellectual, overlaid on the social-novel narrative of three friends who need in some way or other to change their lives. The younger characters aren’t exactly intellectuals, though, and they aren’t exactly old-fashioned. Julius seems to write mostly about popular culture and music. Marina’s book appears to draw on cultural studies but is basically journalism. Danielle is a straight-up reporter. The sense that they’re intellectuals derives from the fact that they studied English literature at Brown, that they write, think, and talk instead of holding down real jobs, and that they mostly circle around figures of more stature like Marina’s father and Ludovic Seeley, the Australian editor of a supposedly “revolutionary” magazine that’s about to be launched. We don’t know what they think, what they read, what they talk about when they’re talking about ideas instead of each other. Their stories, in the novel, don’t have to do with their intellectual development, but with “growing up” of a fairly mundane kind.
Perhaps because of this, they seem marooned in a vague, abstract world that isn’t fully imagined (or if imagined, couldn’t be described given the page limit—more than four hundred pages in a very large format that likely equals two pages of more normal size). It’s mentioned once that Marina recently broke up with a live-in boyfriend of long standing, which would explain her social attenuation, and that sometime in the past ten years she did a lot of research for her book, which would explain what she does with most of her time, but it does seem implausible that she has no friends but Danielle. She grew up in Manhattan, and she is much more wealthy than Danielle is, so while it’s somewhat plausible that Danielle might have no friends in New York except people from work and her two friends from college, it’s hard to believe that Marina, who loves to shop and has a lot of money to spend and no job to go to during the day, would seem to be doing all that shopping herself. We know Julius sleeps around and knows a lot of people in the arts world, but we don’t see any of them. We don’t know even one detail of what he generally writes about, just as we know absolutely nothing of Danielle’s past projects. We don’t know how they got to where they are in their careers. We know what they, and their apartments, look like, that they like to hang out together and with Marina, and that they’re at a crisis point where their careers, right now, are looking to be stalled.
There’s a kind of moralist—sometimes a fiction writer, sometimes not—who’s almost painfully aware of the most negative aspects of every individual’s personality and life. This kind of person is forever pointing out bad things about people. If a fact about someone’s life is ambiguous, this kind of person chooses the most critical or cynical words to describe it. If there’s an extenuating circumstance, or a way to see things from their point of view, this kind of person leaves it out. Jonathan Franzen is one writer who does this. Claire Messud is another. (Compare both of these with the equally painful efforts Jeffrey Eugenides makes to be charitable to each and every one of his point of view characters, and even to the walk-on parts he assigns to the people they meet in the course of their stories.)
Messud was at the center of a kerfuffle a couple of years ago, when the novel after this one had come out, over the “likability” of literary characters. It’s never been clear to me what’s meant by the word. Danielle, Julius, and Marina are all, in their ways, as real people, likable ones. As characters, though, Messud takes pains to tell the reader that they aren’t. One might conclude—reading between the lines—that these are in fact likable people, but that they have flaws, and these flaws are naturally more interesting than the ideals they inhabit in a vague way but don’t fully live up to. But one doesn’t. The apparent intent is that the author doesn’t want us to like these people: that when later in the novel they make bad choices, we readers can match those errors back to the characteristics she’s already told us about.
It’s easy to see that Messud may have had something else in mind. She’s said as much in interviews, after the fact. But there’s nothing in the book to indicate we should read her in the way she seems to prefer.
But because the novel is so ambitious, and so skillfully executed, describing these aspects of its characters and plot doesn’t exhaust what could be said about it. If its characters don’t say much about ideas, they do say plenty about people who write about ideas. There’s lots of deliciously tart storyline about the world in which intellectuals live and breathe, in public and in private. These young people are deciding how to assert themselves in a world that’s starting to look more complicated than it did in college, and Messud contrives to show that world in many of its aspects. What makes The Emperor’s Children worth reading is its ambition: the way it contains all the things that The Cookbook Collector, for example, leaves out, in the name of brevity and modernism. In fact, The Cookbook Collector has a bit more in the way of ideas and of connections with the world outside that of writing; but The Emperor’s Children takes more risks in terms of developing what it does depict in depth and at length. Which is something we don’t see enough of.