Like Anna Quindlen’s Rise and Shine, this novel by Claire Messud sits on The New York Timesbestseller list, probably on the basis of rave reviews by their own staff. Intrigued by the idea of a pre-9/11 story of three Brown University graduates approaching 30, I joined the queue and bought my copy. But as with Quindlen’s book, Messud’s disappointed. What promised to be incisive social critique read to me as self-involved, narcissistic, and shallow, a rather tiresome attempt to “say something important” about our lack of deep social vision, our self-serving American propensities to superficial intellectualism and ambition, and the petty complications of emotional lives that don’t resonate beyond the Manhattan environs that lend them their only edge or color.
Messud’s impeccable pedigree would lead a reader to expect more. Her books have been finalists for the PEN/Faulkner Award; her work has achieved various “Books of the Year” or “Notable Books” lists; and she’s been awarded all the requisite high end, visible fellowships. Her prose, in fact, is impressive; she writes with a kind of dense, descriptive fluidity that captures place and character exceptionally well. Her sentences are long and introspective, precise and detailed. The problem is that the characters she draws don’t elicit empathy or interest beyond the surfaces they represent.
Murray Thwaite is a famous essayist, a public intellectual to whom New Yorkers turn for words of wisdom and pithy insights. In his desk drawer, however, resides a novel, his dream of telling the truth in a more fictional form, kept under lock and key perhaps because of his buried knowledge of his own limitations.
The book-in-progress is found, however, by his brilliant but socially awkward nephew Frederick “Bootie” Tubbs, who’s come unannounced and uninvited from upstate New York to live under his famous uncle’s tutelage. Reading the unrefined prose, Bootie sees through his uncle’s pretensions and decides to unmask him as a fraud in The Monitor, a new magazine of social critique about to be launched by Thwaite’s daughter, Marina, and her louche Australian new husband Ludovic, whose own dastardly ambitions require his proximity to his wife’s father.
Marina, meanwhile, works doggedly at her own manuscript, a social history of children’s clothing called The Emperor’s Children Have No Clothes that was commissioned on the basis of a short article she wrote some five or more years before. Marina’s effort to become her father’s protégé, the rightful heir to his intellectual legacy, seems paltry and trite beside his grander, theoretically more important literary pronouncements.
Messud also gives us Marina’s best friends from their days at Brown: Danielle—a would-be documentary filmmaker with her own radical pretensions, stuck doing a story on liposuction when she’d rather be filming Australian Aborigines—and Julius, a gay would-be journalist whose relationship with a wealthy Jewish stock-trader derails his own career while it temporarily enhances his material life.
To twist the circle one last time, Murray, for no good reason, starts an affair with Danielle, who too quickly (and not terribly believably) falls in love with her friend’s famous father, a womanizer twice her age. The secret affair lasts until the first time they spend the whole night together turns out to be September 10th, 2001.
They wake the next morning to a too-perfect view of the planes flying into the World Trade Center towers, and as Murray trudges uptown to his long-suffering but loyal (and socially noble, given her work with underprivileged children) wife, Danielle understands that she’ll never truly be significant to him, and promptly falls into despair. That her friends think she’s devastated by the events of 9/11 is one of the novel’s more bitter twists.
To give Messud the benefit of the doubt, I have to assume she means to critique her characters’ petty emptiness, but what might have been meant as the novel’s satirical edge never cuts through these people’s pampered lives and distasteful actions. The plot meanders without signaling ironic or critical intentions clearly enough for the reader to bear the superficiality of its characters’ feelings.
When in the last eighth of the book the Towers go down, Messud’s description of the event—despite all the television and newspaper and magazine and web stories we’ve seen or read since—is original, wrenching, beautiful, and somehow right, as she delivers the images with the benefit of hindsight to characters seeing it happen in the moment.
But there’s something crude about using 9/11 as a plot device to facilitate the end of Murray and Danielle’s affair, and to propel Danielle to recognize her insignificance to him. The social tragedy is reduced here to a personal one, and a predictable one at that. Of course Murray, coated by the dust of the Towers, will return to his wife. Of course Murray will resume his place as the omniscient commentator on the world’s events, a man whose smooth surface isn’t even ruffled by his betrayal of Danielle (his wife expects his adulterous interludes and refuses to let him confess to her). Of course, for the powerful and the lucky, life goes on.
Julius, too, suffers an ill-fated relationship, in which David, his lover, furious when he finds Julius in a bar bathroom having sex with another man, beats him senseless and bites off a piece of his cheek. (That David, who along with Danielle is one of only two Jewish characters in the novel, is a rich, spoiled banker from Scarsdale with an ugly mean streak is really unfortunate.) When Julius calls himself “scarred for life” (388), his tragedy, too, is personal, not social.
Although no one deserves the brutality of his attack, the wound seems to give him dignity (perhaps Messud means to draw parallels here between the attack on the US and its brief receipt of international empathy generated by the world’s horrified reaction). But (perhaps like the US) Julius learns nothing from what he suffers. With the despicable end of his relationship, he returns to his Lower East Side walk-up and proceeds much as he did before, despite the indelible mark on his face.
September 11th does nothing more to these characters than to secure their hollowness. The Monitor’s launch is cancelled; the first we hear that the magazine was meant to satirize American social mores is when Ludovic complains that 9/11 makes it irrelevant (I guess this is Messud’s nod to that quick moment people thought was the end of irony). As Marina and Ludovic walk through Union Square a day or two after the Towers fall, Ludovic calls the posters searching for missing people “necrophiliac pornography,” (376), insisting that all the people pictured are dead.
“This is what we should have a cover piece about, this,” he went on, in an apparent seething fury. “About how in this country everybody wants a happy ending. To the point of dishonesty, as if sticking up these posters can somehow undo, or fix, or change what’s just happened. Who’s going to say to them, ‘Go home and face the facts! Your son, mother, niece, is dead, dust, gone. [. . .] But it’s the fucking land of lies here, isn’t it? So nobody’s going to say that. And we’re not going to say it, either, because we don’t have a fucking magazine.” (376)
Marina comforts him in the park, knowing that passers-by have no idea he’s angry for his own material loss, assuming instead he’s sharing the common grief.
Moments like these could be powerful indictments, but Messud hasn’t set the tone early on to prepare us to read her characters as lynchpins of a satirical critique. They’re inherently unlikable from the start, but we’re somehow invited to admire them, rather than see them for what they are, as an author with a better hold of social parody (like Richard Russo in The Straight Man or even Tom Wolfe, at his best) would do.
Messud could be suggesting that without this critical perspective, no one is keeping an eye on American culture, that the voice of critique is officially silenced. But if this is her intent, it’s too obfuscated by her characters’ unbearable privilege to read clearly. They’re all finally spoiled brats crying over toys crushed by the hammer on the anvil of the “real” that was 9/11. Toward the end of the book, Julius and Marina exchange what’s perhaps meant to be an ironic, self-aware social temperature reading:
“No, no,” Julius laughed. “We just want to be at the Party of Big Ideas. Ideally, to throw it. We see there’s no contradiction.”
“Only the insufferable suffer for art. That’s what Ludo says. ‘It’s so déclassé.’”
They laughed, a little awkwardly.
“Does he really believe that?”
“He doesn’t believe in suffering, no.”
“Like suffering is a choice?”
“Whatever.” Marina had stood, put their cups in the garbage, and they had gone back out into the cold. (407)
“Whatever” pretty much sums it up.
The Feminist Spectator