On the front page of today’s NY Times Book Review section, there’s a rave review of “The Emperor’s Children,” a novel by Claire Messud. One of the characters is “Ludovic Seeley, an Australian magazine editor who holds nothing sacred and plans to start a contrarian publication that will spur a revolution…” Another character is a wealthy New Yorker who “purports to believe in ‘the voice of the people’ and has never met a liberal cause he doesn’t like, yet is mildly repulsed by the young, troubled black client of his wife, Annabel, who works at a nonprofit social service agency.”
For those who keep track of reactionary literature, all this should ring a bell. It is the same tried-and-true themes found in Evelyn Waugh, V.S. Naipul or Tom Wolfe. Basically, leftists–whether liberal or radical–are portrayed as cynical or gullible. Their beliefs have more to do with following fashion than about changing society. Since Messud understands herself to be writing a comedy of manners, it might be expected that the leftists come across as fools. Whether they are life-like and interesting is a different matter altogether.
The NY Times has an excerpt from chapter one:
After the meal, the party resettled in the living room, where Ito/Iko curled under Gary‘s arm like a chick beneath a hen’s wing. Danielle gratefully abandoned her wineglass at the table, and sat sipping water as movement and general conversation buzzed around her in a pleasant fog. She felt a thrill of alarm-of life-when Ludovic Seeley took the armchair to her right. “What takes you to New York?” she asked. He leaned in, as she’d seen him do with Moira: intimacy, or the impression of it, was clearly his mode. But he did not touch her. His shirt cuff glowed against the plum velvet of the chair arm. “Revolution,” he said. “I’m sorry?” “I’m going to foment revolution.” She blinked, sipped, attempted silently to invite elucidation. She didn’t want to seem to him unsubtle, unironic, American. “Seriously? Seriously, I’m going to edit a magazine.” “What magazine is that?” “The Monitor.” She shook her head. “Of course you haven’t heard of it-I haven’t got there yet. It doesn’t exist yet.” “That’s a challenge.” “I’ve got Merton behind me. I like a challenge.” Danielle took this in. Augustus Merton, the Australian mogul. Busy buying up Europe, Asia, North America. Everything in English and all to the right. The enemy. Lucy, bearing coffee, appeared suddenly, tinily, before them. “He’s done it before, Danielle. He’s a man to be afraid of, our Ludo. He’s got all the politicians and the journos on the run in this town. The True Voice-have you seen it?” “Oh. Moira told me about it. I mean, she told me about you.” “We don’t see eye to eye on pretty much anything,” Lucy said with a conciliatory smile at Seeley, touching her delicate hand with its black nail polish to his lavender shoulder. “But my God, this bloke makes me laugh.” He bowed his head slightly. “A true compliment. And the first step on the road to revolution.” “And now you’re going to take on New York?” Danielle’s skepticism evidently made him bristle. “Yes,” he said clearly, his gray eyes, their hoods fully retracted, now firmly and unamusedly upon her. “Yes, I am.” . . .
Anybody will immediately pick up on the clumsy irony here. Ludovic Seeley who intends to “start a revolution”, whatever that means, is being funded by an Australian mogul who is buying things up across the world. In other words, Rupert Murdoch is a puppeteer behind the scenes orchestrating some kind of amorphous revolution. Perhaps this is a reference to Murdoch buying up the Village Voice in 1993. In doing so, his goal was mainly to make some money. He did not bother to change the paper’s editorial outlook, which was firmly behind the Clinton presidency. Some of these issues might be worth exploring in a novel, but Messud seems far more interested in glancing references to fashion rather than digging into power relationships in the manner of Honoré de Balzac.
In another NY Times book review that appeared on August 22, Michiko Kakutani referred to Murray Thwaite, one of the main characters, as follows:
The ”emperor” of this hollow land is Murray– a literary lion of sorts, who made his name during the 60′s and 70′s for his essays protesting the war and promoting civil rights, and who has since become a fixture on the college lecture circuit. He is one of those men who preside over their families and legion of followers with suave paternalism; chief among the worshipers at his self-erected temple are Marina and her cousin Bootie, who has dropped out of college and yearns to become Murray’s disciple.
The Economist informs us that “Thwaite made his name young, studying France’s wartime resistance movement while on a Fulbright scholarship to Paris, and is devoted to his wife of many years, a saintly lawyer who represents the ‘battered housewife or burly, knuckleheaded truant’”. Well, who knows. Some novelists enjoy satirizing scholars of the French Resistance and lawyers who represent battered housewives. If I were to spend 2 years writing a satire, I might choose other targets. Like Michael Bloomberg, Marty Peretz or Christopher Hitchens. But somehow I doubt that I could find a publisher or a major newspaper to hype it.
Into this world of the glitterati, a deus ex machina enters in the form of two jetliners that crash into the WTC. Messud’s novel is one of a clutch of fictions prompted by 9/11. It can be placed on the same shelf as Ian McEwan’s openly reactionary “Saturday” and Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” Foer’s main character is a 9 year old who writes letters to Stephen Hawking, designs jewelry, and wanders about New York City wearing only white while playing the tambourine after his father is killed on 9/11. Stupidity must run in the family based on the evidence that Foer’s brother Franklin has become editor of New Republic.
The Village Voice’s literary critic, who figures as a character in Messud’s novel, sums up the relationship to 9/11 this way: “As the characters hurl toward that terrible September day, the narrative goes beyond mere social satire, deepening into a hypnotic, moving read.” Messud ties her characters to September 11th by making Ludovic Seeley’s new magazine about “Revolution” a financial casualty of the terrorist attack and an end to the Wall Street boom. With the grim new realities, apparently there’s no market for “Revolution”, whatever that is supposed to mean for Claire Messud.
Critics have remarked that Claire Messud is supposedly writing about a milieu that she is familiar with. She has written for the London Observer and the NY Times. She is married to Harvard professor James Wood, the New Republic’s literary critic who used to co-teach courses with the bilious and deceased neoconservative novelist Saul Bellow.
James Wood in a Harvard classroom
While no critic has made the connection between Messud and her high-powered husband, it is clear to me that his views on September 11th have influenced her. In a think-piece that appeared in the Guardian, a month after the WTC attack, Wood asserted that “US novelists must now abandon social and theoretical glitter.” Notwithstanding the rave reviews, I doubt that his wife has achieved such a goal.
Ultimately, there is little likelihood that a Claire Messud, a John Updike or a Ian McEwan can really do justice to the significance of September 11, since they are so limited in their understanding of the “Other”. In order to imagine the anger that would fuel a terrorist to fly a jet plane into the World Trade Center, you would have to get into the mind of an Islamic radical. Such are the global realities of today that such a leap of imagination is precluded. In the face of such an immense gulf, it is no surprise that bombs go off across the planet in complete defiance of the “war on terror”.