Friday, September 19, 2008

The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud

I've had this around since it first came out about a year and a half ago. At the time, dipping into the first chapter, I wasn't grabbed by it and put it away. This time, I was drawn to it like a potboiler, which goes to show how much mood and mindset of the reader has to do with things. Books have to find readers at the right time.

I picked it up again because she is married to James Wood, who as I say in earlier posts, I've been reading very carefully lately--both his most recent book and an older one and all the older essays in magazines and papers that I can find. (I have a complete dusty collection of unread New Yorkers from the last several years that I have trouble keeping up with.) Naturally, I wanted to read her book by the standards of his, a perverse and unfair but inevitable way to go about things.

I'm habituated to my own standards, though, and for four days I built up a sleep deficit getting through this book without thinking about her husband's at all. In the end, I have to say I think the book failed, but it was a kind of failure I don't mind at all. I enjoy it nevertheless. And think about it the next day, missing the characters. Expecting much more than that, I know, is a pretty high bar.

For one thing, there are places where I'm suddenly brought to the surface to become aware of myself and of the writer and the seams in the work. The most disappointing place was in the payoff scene where we witness along with a couple key characters the events of 9/11. For some reason the writing right there goes very flabby. It's like having a spell broken.

I can speculate why, but I wouldn't argue this point without having a dialogue with the author, but I have a feeling that she pulled her punches there because of a reluctance to be sentimental or emotional about obviously emotional topics. Such a reluctance would surprise me given that that attitude--a critique of ironic distance--is one of the themes of the book.

I was bothered by some loose ends. Did Seeley intend to publish the essay? (Was he going to betray his wife?) I never got clear on his perspective--lots of people are suspicious of him, but the suspicions are never confirmed or denied, so I don't understand if he's as big a butthole as they want to think he is. The story raises the question of his motivation for marrying Marina and if he has some twisted attraction to Murray, but it never satisfies that question. The mauling of Julius is gross--potentially the kind of "supernova" that Richard Ford talks about, but it has no consequence for theme, character or plot, so it ends up feeling like mere spectacle.

Well, this isn't a critique with a strong commitment to it. I'd have to read the book carefully again to talk clearly why it didn't work for me, and this blog doesn't have the sponsorship to support a second reading. Despite my beating up on it a little here, I enjoyed a ton of other qualities in it, including the momentum of the tale the suspense, and the exploration of the "emperor has no clothes" story. I encourage people to read it.

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