In this age of national insecurity and economic malaise, remembering the pre-9/11 days can be a daunting challenge. It’s a delicate mood to recreate, considering the hindsight provided by those terrorist attacks, but certainly there were feelings of overly confident institutionalization and intellectual pretentiousness. Could 9/11 have originated in such superiority, the fated effect to a snobbish cause?
In her novel “The Emperor’s Children,” Claire Messud tries to capture the professional and personal dissatisfaction of a generation facing its quarterlife crisis. She depicts three late-twentysomethings trudging through Manhattan in the spring and summer of 2001: Danielle Minkoff, a TV documentary producer who wants to cover weighty topics like Australia’s reparations to Aborigines but instead is forced to produce reports on liposuction; Marina Thwaite, a would-be author who can’t bring herself to finish a book on how children’s clothing reflects society; and Julius Clarke, a part-time critic for the Village Voice obliged by his rent to temp at corporations in his only suit.
Marina is by far the most developed character of the three old friends from Brown. She is suppressed by the shadow of her wildly successful father, Murray Thwaite, a famous journalist and liberal commentator. Her manuscript on children’s fashion, titled “The Emperor’s Children Have No Clothes,” is going nowhere; she has no job, living in her parents’ spacious apartment, regularly attending yoga classes and otherwise idling away her time. Marina’s privilege is smothering in its ability to prevent her from ever actually doing anything. She notes that she wants to do something worthwhile, but nearing 30 she has never held the entry-level jobs or put in the time and hard work usually necessary to obtain to such a position.
Danielle and Julius enjoy their own plotlines. He takes up with a corporate hotshot who prefers cocaine to family gatherings, popping into the main story every now and then to document his downfall — or rather, his fall from the low perch he already occupied. Danielle plods along through her documentarian career, forced to watch as Marina’s personal and professional lives suddenly right themselves. Into Marina’s life floats Ludovic Seeley, an Australian editor looking to found a new, cutting-edge cultural magazine in New York. Marina and Ludo meet through Danielle and a chance lunchtime encounter, and Danielle spends the rest of the novel resenting Marina as she simultaneously falls in love with Ludo and takes a top editorship at his new magazine.
The last member of the cast is Murray Thwaite’s nephew, and Marina’s cousin, 19-year-old Frederick “Bootie” Tubb, raised in some backwater New York town and dropped out of SUNY-Oswego. He’s certainly not dumb; Bootie was accepted to Harvard, but hid that from his mother, ostensibly so she wouldn’t be forced to pay his tuition but in reality another aspect of his complicated superiority-cum-victimization complex. He is, perhaps, the novel’s most pretentious character, spurning collegiate authority and always nose-deep in Walden and Thoreau; Bootie is concurrently crippled by inaction, never able to finish a book or compose an essay, something he swore to do in the furthering of his own autodidactic education. Bootie uses his family relationship to move in with the Thwaites, and ultimately works as a secretary for his storied uncle. Bootie quickly decides, however, that Murray is not as authentic as he portrays himself in the media and his books, and plots to reveal the truth through a tell-all piece in Ludo’s magazine (nevermind that Marina would be the one to edit it).
The stage thus set, the characters unwittingly hurtle toward that crisp September day, spurred on by pretentiousness, self-satisfaction and “the absence of any limitations against which to rebel.” Messud’s prose is thick — physically and literarily — and endlessly engrossing. Marina and Julius and Bootie are eminently unlikable yet unnervingly reflective of the pre-9/11 Ivy League-literary class. “The Emperor’s Children” is an engaging comedy of manners that deftly passes judgment on the intellect-for-the-hell-of-it attitude so pervasive nine years ago.