Monday, July 23, 2007

Manhattan Maladies

The demands of work have kept me away from this blog for a while; in a feeble attempt to set the balance right, I'm posting an edited version of a review that appeared in The Times of India in November 2006. Normal service will resume soon.


Way back when Woody Allen was shooting films on the streets of his favourite city, he called attention to a distinctive Manhattan malady: his characters were obsessively self-conscious, analysing and dissecting their lives ad infinitum. It’s a trait shared by the characters in Claire Messud’s new novel, The Emperor’s Children. This is a comedy of manners that shows up the vanities and petty preoccupations of New York’s chatterati in the months leading up to, and a little after, the destruction of the Twin Towers.

It’s about three friends: Danielle, a TV producer looking for a break; Julius, a talented reviewer searching for the right break; and Marina, thwarted in her attempts to complete a manuscript on the sociological implications of children’s clothing.

Setting events into motion is the trio’s relationship with two others: Murray Thwaite, Marina’s father, a man of letters with feet of clay; and Ludovic Seeley, who arrives in town to set up a magazine to fuel a cultural revolution. Into the lives of these people lands the “plump, fumbling, bibliophilic” Frederick, Murray’s nephew, an idealistic and na├»ve Emerson-reading youth, desperate to carve out a career free of the strictures of traditional education. Frederick becomes the novel’s moral centre of gravity: the book pivots on his actions, leading each character to re-evaluate his or her life.

Messud’s touch is light; even though her sentences are often Jamesian in their complexity, her elegant and particular prose never loses its ironic tone. The desire for vapid achievement that she satirises is satisfyingly familiar. However, it must be added that an unfortunate side-effect of her characters’ self-absorption is that it makes the novel overpoweringly insular.

Worth your while? There’s no denying that Messud’s skills are poised and precise, and that this is among the better 9/11-themed novels -- but page after page of navel-gazing can be a bit too suffocating.

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