The Emperor's Children, by Claire Messud

Pride before a fall in a city on the edge
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The Independent Culture

Claire Messud's gracefully written new novel, the length of its sentences and the cadences of its prose reminiscent of Henry James, focuses on the moral dilemmas of a group of affluent young New York professionals, and the shocks delivered to their complacent self-belief by acts of personal and political violence. Although the novel is (crucially) set in New York City, its streets hardly feature: we see the characters inside their apartments, chatting over dinner in fashionable restaurants, having sex in nightclub washrooms.

Early on, Danielle, an ambitious television producer, has lunch with Ludovic, a journalist planning to devastate the world of cultural commentary with his dazzling, radical new magazine The Monitor. She glances out of the restaurant window "at the pedestrians passing on the other side of the glass, a million miles away, at a homeless man, dread-headed, tattered, teetering... shaking his scaly outstretched hand at the crowds". To preserve their sense of superiority, Danielle, her best friend Marina, and Julius, a writer of book reviews, keep the outside world at bay, and keep their distance not just from suffering humanity in general but from the Other in particular.

Their point of view, narrated sometimes via the Flaubertian, over-the-shoulder method and sometimes more omnisciently, is cold and judging. They perceive foreigners, especially the poor, as caricatures: "a fat-shouldered Serb with a flamboyant mustache and a mournful physiognomy, who seemed to have been squeezed into a uniform two sizes too small... a small Spanish woman, with a tight chignon and a peculiar wen by her right ear... The man who came to the door had as much stubble on his fleshy jowls as he did on the top of his head." Even worse than brutish foreigners are middle-aged women: "a woman, no longer young, with a salt-and-pepper mane and a prominent nose, a woman squeezed into a T-shirt manifestly too small, from which her arms bulged... that smarmy princess of a secretary, forty-eight, fleshless and sinisterly demure... encased in a vermilion ensemble whose lines and hue served only to accentuate the immensity of her bosom".

On and on goes the litany of disgust. Why should we care anything for these odious yuppies? Messud, having bravely taken the risk of alienating us completely from her young characters, then makes us do a double-take. The young swivel their eyes critically upon their elders, in particular the famous writer Murray Thwaite - Marina's father, much given to receiving accolades from "bovine" groups of fellow writers, to pontificating on TV about life, and to hiding his selfishness and moral vacuity under a cloak of hypocritical liberalism. Messud gamely makes Murray sympathetic: we witness his love for his wife, a radical lawyer, his private torments, his kindness in inviting his young, idealistic nephew Bootie to stay.

Bootie, however, proves the avenging angel who will topple Murray from his pedestal just as the Twin Towers collapse and burn. Suddenly the city streets appear, devastated. If the Emperor no longer has any clothes, then his naked, shivering children, suddenly equal to all those they previously despised, have to sift through the wreckage, and work out their chances of redemption.

Michèle Roberts's latest novel is 'Reader, I Married Him' (Virago)