The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Monday, October 02, 2006


Claire Messud's THE EMPEROR'S CHILDREN appeared last month to rave reviews, many comparing it to Jonathan Franzen's THE CORRECTIONS. In a sense, the comparison is accurate; both are realist novels about educated, upper-middle-class thirty-year-olds finding their way in the world. In simplest terms the novel is about three thirty-year-old Brown grads: the daughter of a famous lefty journalist/pundit who is struggling with her first book; a young gay critic whose bloom is fading and who is going a bit to seed; and a striving documentarian. Circling around them are Murray Thwaite, the "emperor," the journalist, and Bootie Tubb, the journalist's provincial nephew. I'm not quite sure why outlets from the New York Times to Slate raved about it so; one suspicion I have is that it didn't take long for Katie Roiphe, who reviewed it in Slate, to realize that it is about her. Unlike THE CORRECTIONS, this novel is essentially a chronicle (and, to my albeit limited experience, a very accurate one) of the young media/intellectual elite in New York City: and those are the people who are reviewing it.

While I didn't find the novel brilliant, it was definitely a "page-turner," as Roiphe called it. Messud can plot a novel better than Benjamin Kunkel (whose INDECISION is often compared to this book), but she's one of the blessed, with multiple awards and PEN/Faulkner nominations. I might just be getting tired of this relentless realism, but I didn't find the novel anywhere near as exciting as most reviewers did--or even as exciting as THE CORRECTIONS. Give me Richard Ford, with his prickly and unlikeable characters, or Richard Russo, or even Michael Chabon.

More troublesome, though, was Messud's prose. She's got a voice that I'm sure must get called "lyrical" or "stream-of-consciousness," but to me it just got old. Long, baggy sentences that feel like they're aspiring to James but that don't have his architectonic rigidity. I know that with the constant minimal shifts of meaning and perspective Messud is probably trying to mirror her characters' indecision and openness to new impressions. I also suspect that the wordiness, the way the language calls attention to itself, reflects how the hypereducated characters filter their experiences through language and discourse. This style wasn't limited to the narration when it was in these characters' heads, though: it was omnipresent, even in dialogue. A typical sentence:

"Marina the diligent daughter, his right hand, who else could finish his work, even his sentences if need be, and never questioned, never asked, when he might make room for her, because--it was so obvious; how could she have needed Ludo to show her, and even, too, the missteps of poor Bootie Tubb?--to him it was all about Murray Thwaite, always."


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