If it were non-fiction, Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children might have been titled Brats: A Study in Pre-9/11 Liberal Narcissism. I’m glad she wrote it as a novel, though, because neither sociopolitical analysis nor literary fiction — which this is — typically makes for such tense, compelling, cunningly plotted reading as Messud has accomplished here.
Her previous novels were of a certain high-toned, fancy-pants variety with “international” themes, so you wouldn’t necessarily have expected this from her. But The Emperor’s Children absolutely nails just the kind of people who most enjoy thinking of themselves as the type who read those other books.
The protagonists are a trio of 30-year-old Manhattanites, college friends who met at Brown and stayed close thereafter. Messud’s theme is the feeling of entitlement shared by these spoiled children. They have very little of substance — not even much money — to justify their sense of superiority. This is a parable of the privileged, empty liberalism, wildly out of touch with the realities of evil in the world, that was supposed to have been blown apart with the World Trade Center.
The three pals are: Marina Thwaite, daughter of celebrated liberal journalist and egotistical blowhard Murray Thwaite. For years, beautiful, dim Marina has been trying to complete a book on the hermeneutics of children’s clothing. Then there is Julius Clarke, a half-Asian gay would-be literary critic with a phony quasi-British accent. Finally, the least objectionable of the three, Danielle Minkoff is a not-quite-successful producer of high-minded public-television documentaries about things like the oppression of Australian aborigines and the perils of liposuction. In his or her own way, each is flailing and failing, not quite up to the rigors of an adult career. Not that any of the three friends entirely perceives this:
“It all came down to entitlement, and one’s sense of it. Marina, feeling entitled, never really asked herself if she was good enough. Whereas he, Julius, asked himself repeatedly, answered always in the affirmative, and marveled at the wider world’s apparent inability to see the light. He would have to show them — of this he was ever more decided, with a flamelike conviction. But he was already thirty, and the question was how?”
Into their stable three-way friendship intrude three unpredictable forces. One: Frederick “Bootie” Tubb, Marina’s 20-year-old college dropout and self-styled “genius” of a cousin from genuinely unprivileged Watertown, N.Y. Two: lizard-like Australian “revolutionary” Ludovic Seeley, preparing to start up a generously funded magazine of “radical cultural commentary.” And three: the 9/11 terrorists, whom we don’t meet but the impact of whose plotting erupts out of a gorgeous morning sky toward the end of the book.
Ludovic talks about revolution, but it’s little more than an advertisement for himself. As Messud makes clear, there is really nothing for these children of privilege to rebel against. There are two kinds of spoiled children, after all, and which kind one is depends on what kind of parents were doing the spoiling. A parent who stands for something beyond himself can be rebelled against: Think of King David’s handsome, perpetually indulged son Adonijah, who sought to take the throne of Israel for himself. But a parent who himself is just an empty shirt, like Murray Thwaite, presents nothing of substance to rebel against. This is the heartbreaking dilemma of today’s campus leftists.
Speaking of campuses, in selecting Brown as the place where Marina, Julius, and Danielle met, Messud has chosen shrewdly. As a graduate myself of this Ivy League exemplar, not of liberalism, exactly, but of the shallowest, most dim-witted liberalism-for-show-and-tell, I can vouch for her accuracy.
The Wall Street Journal, too, is on the case: It recently reported on some of the many embarrassing examples of how Brown’s admissions office pursued and admitted the children of celebrities, no matter how dumb, to impart a vapid flavor of glitter and prestige. Which sums up the attraction of being Left for some people who haven’t given a thought to the philosophical issues that divide liberals from conservatives. Liberalism for them is simply the glittering, jet-set choice, associated with celebrity, but not necessarily with intellectual substance.
This politics of social privilege was most naturally at home in pre-9/11 America, and ought to have been wiped away by that horrendous crime. Basing beliefs on the prestige they confer on us was a luxury of the Clinton years, when nothing much — never mind the future of civilization — seemed to be at stake. But surely, no more. Or so you would have hoped. If only.
I should state, for the record, that Messud’s own views on politics are not obvious. (Her husband, James Wood, is a senior editor at The New Republic.) But, when it comes to her portrait of Julius, she certainly is no sentimental celebrator of homosexual romance. His relationship with a stable-seeming, golf-playing young Jewish businessman ends violently in the grungy restroom of a gay dive bar with Julius cradling his own bleeding, mutilated cheek. The bite marks deeply incised in it belong to his boyfriend.
I can’t say that I loved any of these characters. But that makes it all the more remarkable that Messud builds the kind of tension into her story that she does. These people don’t deserve to have us care about them. Yet as the months count down from March 2001 to September, as Messud expertly sets all in place for the devastating climax, this literary novel becomes suspenseful to the point of being a page-turner. Because we know generally what’s coming, the feeling of dread builds and builds, though we don’t know which of these self-absorbed individuals will have his or her life utterly changed or ended on 9/11.
Messud eerily resurrects the unreality of that day. Danielle’s high-rise apartment has a perfect view of the towers, so she’s able to watch both in person and on television:
“[She] thought, at one point in the blur of it, that it was like witches, who couldn’t be photographed — that had always been the belief, at any rate, in her childhood lore — by which you knew they were witches, and that by the same token what took place outside the window could have been credited as sorcery, some trick of the light, almost comical, so absurd, were it not for the fact that it was being filmed — the filming of it, the assurance of reality: the whole world was seeing this, and the Pentagon, too, and this was how you knew that it was really true.”
This is a beautifully written novel, though perhaps not an encouraging one. The liberalism of vanity and self-love didn’t end on 9/11 and it doesn’t in Messud’s depiction either. What her characters do learn is something different but still valuable, not political but personal. About that, I’ll keep you in suspense.
Mr. Klinghoffer is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute. His new book, Shattered Tablets: Why We Ignore the Ten Commandments at Our Peril (Doubleday), will be published in April.