Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Who ARE These People?

The Emperor's Children
by Claire Messud

Truthfully, I can't decide if I liked this book or not. It's certainly an entertaining enough read, and Messud is able to draw vivid characters who keep the story moving in ways that hold the reader's attention. Having said that, though, when I finished the book I had this feeling like I wanted to take a bath. These characters are some of the most spiritually and morally bankrupt people (fiction OR non-fiction) that I have encountered to date. The story loses something because there is no one to root for, no one to empathize with. The reader experiences disbelief that "adults" can be so vapid and narcissistic and behave like such fools. You want to sell them a ticket on the clue bus.

The book is mostly about a small group of thirtyish Manhattanite friends who are struggling to figure out what they want to do with their lives. Most of them come from privileged backgrounds and are well educated, and they want to have "important" jobs that "make an impact." But - they do not want to have to learn a profession or do grunt work to get a foot in the door of any specific field. They seem to want to make their splash out of some sort of vacuum, and it is most important to be known, recognized, and remembered. How they make their mark is less significant than making it in the first place. When things do not go as planned, the characters resort to old fall backs like drugs, materialism, sexual promiscuity, adultery, and deception for the dual purposes of comforting themselves and feeding the illusion that they are hip "It" people.

There also is another major character (the father of one of the above twenty somethings) whose behavior is nauseating. He claims to want to escape his working class background by demanding "more of life, always more," thereby justifying having an adulterous affair with his daughter's best friend as well as other less egregious misdeeds. The character (named Murray) is a well-respected journalist, and the journalistic establishment stokes the fires of Murray's ego by placing him on a pedestal and making him feel invincible.

I am no prude, but found much of these characters' behaviors offensive. They want to glean every possible experience from life, but seem to be missing character traits that (in my opinion) enrich life to its highest potential, like loyalty, honesty, integrity, and commitment. They do not nurture even their (supposedly) closest relationships, yet wonder why they feel bereft and aimless (get a grip, people). They fancy themselves to be super-intellectuals, and are proud of believing in no God. It's as if they find faith and the spiritual life quaint, something for people who do not know any better.

Of course there are shallow people in this world, but I am not sure that I buy it that people exist who are this devoid of sincerity, a sense of the world outside their small circle, or work ethic. It could be that Claire Messud is drawing a caricature, encapsulating the worst characteristics of a certain privileged class of young adults in a few uber-sickening characters. If they do exist in the real world, I feel sorry for them. They are missing out on the parts of life that give us meaning, fulfillment, and purpose. In short, they are mistaking existence for life. Very sad.

The book ends a couple of months after 9/11. The horror of that event does cause a couple of the characters to reevaluate their lives and make some changes. Even their repentance, though, has a hollow feel to it. We wonder if they are really changed or just shell-shocked. Hopefully the former. Maybe Messud will write a sequel sometime. Not sure if I would read it or not.

Reverent Reader


At 11/27/07, 5:05 PM , Anonymous Pam said...

I couldn't get past half way in this book!!! Those characters were not worth the time -- I felt like they were entitled spoiled brats. I'm glad I didn't finish it -- I agree with your assessment! Many people thought it was a good book. I wonder why.

At 11/27/07, 7:28 PM , Blogger Reverent Reader said...

Hey Pam - I know, this book made all kinds of "Best of" lists in a wide range of publications, from People to the Village Voice. I can't deny that she is a good writer, but just was not all that moved by the book. Wanted to shake most of the characters most of the time.

At 11/27/07, 8:08 PM , Blogger ssf said...

I actually became engrossed in this book and raced through it because every time I turned a page, I thought - now there will finally be something positive about somebody. I finished the book feeling totally unfulfilled and cheated. Maybe if there had been some kind of moral to the story or if the ending had been different...

At 11/27/07, 9:20 PM , Blogger Reverent Reader said...

SSF - a thousand apologies - we gave you that book last Christmas! I thought "oh cool, this is about young New Yorkers and is getting all kinds of accolades, she'll probably like it." Once I read it, I was mortified at having made such a poor choice. Hopefully will do better this year!

At 11/29/07, 8:24 AM , Blogger ssf said...

No worries! I always appreciate a new book. Reading is never a waste of time and as I said, I got really into this book even though the ending was disappointing.


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