Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Tiny children's furniture

I just finished Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children. I will now spoil its plot.

Reviews I've seen since finishing it - and what I vaguely recall the buzz being about the book when it came out - call the protagonists (three 30-year-old friends who'd met at Brown) "privileged," which is true in some respects, but isn't entirely useful or accurate. They're something, but there might be a better way to put it. Two - Danielle and Julius - are middle-class Midwesterners settled in tiny apartments in New York. Julius is barely scraping by (a freelance writer supporting himself by temping, struggling to keep up appearances), while Danielle's a TV producer doing a bit better but not much. The third, Marina, is a definitive child of privilege - think a Dunham alter ego, played instead by Natalie Portman - but is stuck in her childhood, regressing to the mean and procrastinating on a book about - drumroll please - children's dress. (Is that topic perfect, or overkill?) The eternal-child thing, again, it's very Lena Dunham.

Longwinded paragraph short, yes, this is an overrepresentation-of-literary-types-in-New-York novel, but there's not all that much advantage going around. By all means, be annoyed that this got published and your account of watching rabbits from out the window in NJ did not. (Will Bisou's novel ever get published?) But let's be clear why we're meant to be annoyed by its very existence.

We get a bunch of perspectives (and any novelist capable of jumping around various gender/age/sexual-orientation categories is, if nothing else, good), but we're implicitly supposed to identify with Danielle, hard-working, from Ohio, plain-but-not-that-plain, as opposed to the beautiful, spoiled Marina. In a neat twist, the Jewish woman is the sensible Midwesterner, the WASP the native-New-Yorker of intellectual-clout heritage, the daddy's-little-princess. So that's something.

Marina's thing is that after so many years, she's still sitting on her dissertation-I-mean-book-project. There's some line about how her father thought the project was a charming one for a 23-year-old but pathetic for a 30-year-old. Let the dissertator who has not thought this about herself cast the first day-old Bagel Bob's bagel. And, eh, I suspect many who've slogged through humanities dissertations will end up identifying more with Marina than with the sensible, effortlessly-professionally-successful Danielle. Even those of us who are not, like Marina, the beautiful offspring of famous people.

Certain things, some more important than others, don't add up: Why do all these American characters use "fancy" for "like"? Why does Marina, if she's the daughter of a big-deal Upper West Side intellectual, think it's a big deal to have that life situation? Isn't this just her normal, as it goes for all of us with respect to our childhoods, unless ours were radically different from those of our peers? As in, why wouldn't someone like this have a whole bunch of childhood friends from similar families? If she's this socialite who'd once worked at Vogue, why would she have just the two friends, neither of whom are from remotely that background? Marina seems to view her own upbringing from the perspective of an outside observer. This is because we're never really outside Danielle's head, to the point that it would have perhaps been better if this had been more straightforwardly Danielle's perspective we were getting (in first person?). And why does Danielle, if she so fancies Ludovic, introduce him to - and ask him to hire! - her stunning friend? These are behaviors that could be explained/alluded to, but aren't.

Also: why Julius? He's in many ways a more interesting character than the rest, and provides just about all the demographic diversity, but when we meet him, he's on the cusp of having next to nothing to do with the rest of the plot. (A plot revolving around him might have been more fun.) A gay male friend once close to the two female protagonists, whose function in the novel appears to be primarily to provide a sublet for Marina's visiting cousin.

And I now see I haven't even gotten into what the story's about. Namely Danielle having an affair with Marina's father, out of some kind of revenge or who knows. And Marina marrying a man just like her father. And Marina's cousin Bootie showing up and Bildungsromanning his way into all kinds of trouble. Bootie and Marina were in some abstract sense switched at birth - she'd have been happier with a small-scale, small-town life, and is oppressed by the expectation that she write a book and be an intellectual, whereas Bootie wants nothing more than that life and is your classic literary small-town boy dreaming of bigger things. And of course the 9/11 angle. You know it's coming, so Marina's "September" wedding couldn't feel more ominous.

No comments: