I originally wrote this post on The Emperor’s Children in 2007, just a few months after I’d started blogging. I thought about the book again recently, because it came up in a discussion about how women writers handle satire. I’ve kept it in mind as a reference, because I remember admiring how Messud handled the balance of mocking her characters and subtly criticizing the reader.
Here is what I originally wrote:
Satire makes for uncomfortable reading precisely because of its preoccupation with exposure. Its desire to ridicule the very object of its scrutiny. From the safe distance of the reader’s outside view, satire is always good for a laugh. An easy way to indulge in some effortless criticism of society or an individual. But taken to heart, which is satire’s most difficult lesson, it’s not always easy to swallow. The truly skilled satirist manages to eloquently pass judgment on both the reader and the subject.
In The Emperor’s Children, Claire Messud reveals herself to be quite up to satire’s thorny task. She gives us a cast of socialite New Yorkers centered around three friends – Danielle, Julius, and Marina, all literate, all literary, and all too-ready to compromise family, friends and even health for nothing more than a one-night stand, a glamorous job, or a regular mention in the people pages. These characters are all so self-involved they manage to pass from the day before 9/11 to the day after without batting an eyelash. And the enormity of that event gets quickly swept under the carpet of each character’s more petty trials and tribulations. Or, I should say, 9/11 drowns in the backwash of the smaller events that these three, until that moment, have placed upon their personal altars of consequence.
Danielle has an affair with Marina’s father, a powerful literary figure with an unbelievably dedicated and morally sound wife. Marina pretends to literary aspirations when her real passion is focused on gaining the admiration of an up-and-coming magazine editor. Julius proclaims literary and artistic independence (meaning he won’t get a job even though he’s poor) while abusing his body in an endless spiral of sexual promiscuity and drug abuse. Murray, Marina’s father, is the so-called Emperor of this tribe. An apparent success and a man who considers himself resolutely posited against “the establishment”. Each and every one of them gnash their teeth, expound on the virtues of their superior minds, and plead the case for the uniqueness of their sensitive souls.
Messud sets her characters down atop a detailed canvas she calls American New York, replete with Armani suits and summer homes, ample cocaine and easy trysts, then she lets them machinate, whine, harangue, and battle each other and themselves for the purely trivial. And just when we think we’re ready to snigger and laugh out loud at these small-minded humans, Messud gives them just enough humanity to remind us that we are often in the same boat. We are often consumed by the same insignificant crises, aspire to the same shallow notoriety, and affect the same passionate support for worthy causes. So in the end, the reader’s sniggering is measured with a guilty chuckle and our admiration for Messud’s skill countered with a flush of embarrassment.
Now, almost five years later, thinking of Messud with respect to Pym (one of the other examples of satire I’ve read recently), I find that while Pym’s satire strikes me as having sharper teeth in terms of its delivery, its focus is somewhat smaller and more personal. Messud, on the other hand, takes on an entire society, an entire way of thinking. In The Emperor’s Children, she takes on America, as it were, and the myths of American culture. So although the feel of her satire is a bit softer, it brings the reader around to a powerful critique.
Both ways of engaging in satire are fun to experience, yet I think I prefer Pym’s variety while I’m actually reading, because it is so wonderfully clever and sharp. Messud’s gives less of an immediate wicked chuckle, but it bears out interestingly in the long term.