Is Claire Messud Wearing Any Clothes?

This is a question I have been sleeping on, fitfully. I finished The Emperor’s Children last night and I really wanted to be able to post a wholly enthusiastic assessment of it here, but I can’t. First, let’s get rid of business. This is a book that has to appear in the epilogue of my dissertation, which discusses literary reactions to the Sept. 11 attacks. My primary focus in this epilogue is going to be on how in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close Jonathan Safran Foer uses the figure and style of “the child” as a way of modeling what he takes to be an ethical or appropriate literary response to an event which, it seems clear, reminds him of the Holocaust, Dresden, Hiroshima, and All Manner of Bad Historical Thing. Messud approaches Sept. 11 more directly, making it a crucial hinge around which her handful of plots turn. Sept. 11 changes her characters. In short, it does the work that she ought to be doing herself as a novelist.

But before dealing with its problems, I should admit I really enjoyed the first three parts of the novel, approximately the first three hundred pages. Messud is good at writing one kind of sentence–a sort of Henry James Lite sentence–but it’s a beautiful sentence and can achieve impressive effects at the level of the paragraph and the chapter. Some of the novel’s early chapters are really terrific, scathingly ironic in the best way. Their satirical edge, and enormous energy, was partly what compelled me to buy the book in the first place. Unfortunately Messud becomes a victim of her own success; she flails when she tries to deviate from her standard style. Efforts at writing fake newspaper columns or at miming styles other than her preferred one creak awkwardly. This is also a symptom of the fact that Messud has problems writing characters with depth and dimension. Everyone speaks like everyone else, thinks like everyone else, experiencing the world through the prisim of her Henry James Lite style, which at first seems as if it’s an ironic commentary on how the minds of these characters work but turns instead into an inadvertently commentary on Messud herself.

What differentiates her two female protagonists, Danielle and Marina, are their relative levels of beauty and their jobs. Her two main gay characters, Julius and David, though supposedly very different sorts of gay men, end up seeming like catty clones of each other, stereotypes incarnate. Murray Thwaite, the intellectual luminary at the center of the narrative–the “emperor” of the title–is also paper-thin. His intellectual pedigree and his esteem in the liberal community are often referred to but never persuasively demonstrated; he manages not to say even one smart thing in 470 pages, which may be part of the novel’s point about him, but Messud doesn’t do nearly enough to build him up before she tears him down.

Only Booty, Murray’s nephew, rises above the words on the page that describe him. Only he makes a meaningful choice when confronted with the terrorist attacks–and a hilarious one at that. The rest of her characters are constitutionally unable to make meaningful choices because their personhood has not been sufficiently developed in the pages that precede the moment of the attack. Danielle becomes depressed. Murray remains more or less the same. Marina and Julius are only superficially scarred. I came to this novel prepared to like it–hell, even to love it–and for about three hundred pages I did, on its own terms, in its own style. Once September rolled around, the whole thing fell apart for me. Which does not of course mean I won’t write about the book in my dissertation. I will.