By Charles Matthews

Sunday, January 23, 2011

10. The Emperor's Children, by Claire Messud, pp. 387-479

The Emperor's Children (Vintage)September. Chapter Fifty-four: An Evening on the Town; Chapter Fifty-five: Married; Chapter Fifty-six: Not Telling; Chapter Fifty-seven: A Speaking Engagement; Chapter Fifty-eight: The Morning After; Chapter Fifty-nine: The Monitor; Chapter Sixty: At Home; Chapter Sixty-one: Fort Greene; Chapter Sixty-two: Clarion Call. November. Chapter Sixty-three: Burying the Dead (1); Chapter Sixty-four: Burying the Dead (2); Chapter Sixty-five: Burying the Dead (3); Chapter Sixty-six: Burying the Dead (4); Chapter Sixty-seven: Take Them by Surprise.
On the way back to the city, David claims that he was glad to have finally met Julius's friends. "Julius both believed him and didn't believe him, was at once pleased and disappointed. It seemed, indeed, that cohabitation, rather than a state of peace, was, for Julius at least, a state of constant, rather wearing, contradiction." They had had "a 'talk about us'" that weekend, prompted by the wedding that they can't yet have. Julius observes that "every gay couple precisely has to rewrite the rules" because, unlike heterosexual couples, they "don't get the rules handed down by society."

Julius has to take the lead in this conversation because David's responses are sometimes monosyllabic. "So what are our rules, then?" he asks. He prompts: "Mutual respect, tolerance, forgiveness.... And we know, like I said, not to confuse love and desire." David agrees on all of these, but it's not clear that he's agreeing to exactly what Julius has in mind: i.e., tolerance of and forgiveness for his occasional lapses into desire for sex with men other than David.
Julius understood them to have exchanged a moment of powerful honesty, an acknowledgment of their needs, of the need for Lewis, or for Dale. It was thrilling, quietly thrilling, to be able to speak not wholly openly but with such clarity about something so fraught. He felt relieved, and assumed that David, too, felt this way. 
But back in the city, at Julius's Pitt Street apartment, David's depression about losing his job deepens, and his complaints about the apartment continue. He tells Danielle "that without work and without money, David was not the blithe, fun-loving man he had once been." He spends three or four hours a day at the gym, which is where he showers because he says the one in Julius's apartment is filthy.

Julius takes on more work, including the piece for Marina, and in anticipation of getting paid for it, and to make up after a quarrel, he takes David out to their favorite restaurant. Afterward, they go for drinks at a gay bar on First Avenue, where they meet Jan, a friend of David's, who suggests they go to a rough dive on Avenue C. There they drink and dance, and Julius does some coke. And looking across the room at David "he realized ... that they were, as a couple, doomed." He tries to suppress the thought, "an only later would he remember thinking it, and wonder whether the thought had permitted, or caused, what came after."

At the bar he flirts with a guy and follows him to a lavatory stall. "Even afterward, he would know it to have been one of the most exciting sexual adventures of his life: the brazenness, the danger, the exoticism." But suddenly David is there, "dragging them both by their skin, viciously, out into the bathroom, their trousers flapping open, dicks out, and he was pummeling at Julius.... David had cut him, had punched him, and was still roaring, bellowing like an elephant ... and then David, like an animal, lunged, his mouth wide, and he bit. He bit Julius's cheek, and there was the sound of it, of the skin breaking."

Julius finds his way home, but as he's looking at his mutilated face, contemplating what has happened, a cop car pulls up, and a policeman calls him to the door. "David, whose face gleamed pale with demented triumph, lurked in the background, taunting him." David has charged Julius with theft because of the things Julius has in his apartment. "He says he doesn't want to press charges, but he's concerned for his safety, sir." Julius is astonished at the effrontery. "David was grinning." Julius stands aside as David retrieves his things, and then takes the cop's advice and goes to the emergency room.

A week after the wedding, Marina "felt as though she were married not to a man but to The Monitor; or rather, that he was married to The Monitor and she was not married at all." She confides this to Danielle, who reminds her of the story of the chef who was very famous in London. Ludo "could be Jesus Christ in Sydney, yet even in the era of the Global Village he was nothing in New York, not until he'd worked his miracles in Manhattan." Danielle also tells Marina what happened to Julius, and that he's coming over, so Marina decides to join them.

At Danielle's, Marina notices that Danielle is drinking Scotch, which she didn't use to do, and that she has the good sheets on her bed. Julius tells them that he's going back to the temp agency because David was paying the rent. They also learn that Bootie has moved to Brooklyn -- he left a forwarding address, but no phone number. Danielle thinks someone should check on him: "He seems poignant to me. I feel like in some way I am him, or he is me." After Marina leaves, Julius comments on the scotch and the good sheets. "I don't know, there's just something different about this place. It almost smells like cigarettes, though maybe that's just your neighbors." He begins to pick at her about who she's seeing, and she comes close to telling him about Murray. "But Julius was not discreet; and if she told him anything, she would eventually tell him who; and once she'd told him that, it would all be over."

On Monday Murray pretends to go to Chicago, but instead goes to Danielle's apartment. As for deceiving Annabel, he has a rationale:
He didn't delve too deeply  into her separate life, hadn't wanted to meet the famous DeVaughn, say (although he had, that once, in the summertime, without meaning to), or any of the other clients who drew so heavily and zealously upon his wife's angelic resources. He knew that this was justifying: there was no genuine comparison between her de facto secrets and his own. The point was to assuage this feeling, for which he had no purpose, which could only be named guilt.
He has a surprise for Danielle: He has booked a helicopter ride over the city at dusk. It's not such a welcome surprise; Danielle hates flying. But she holds tightly to him, and he sees that "the wide-eyed cast of her face was now of childlike wonder rather than fear." He thinks of them as "co-conspirators." And later, when she puts on a recording of "a Spanish soprano singing Cantaloube, her pure, agonized strains floating, their minor harmonies wavering in the small room," it's as if it is reminding "them both that beauty and loss were inseparably entwined."

In the morning she is showering when she hears him cry out. From her window he can see the World Trade Center towers: "they lived the next hour and a half in stereo, watching through the window -- their view spectacularly, hideously unimpeded -- and watching on the screen, as if they were simultaneously in Manhattan and anywhere on the planet." Eventually, he realizes that he has to call Annabel, who will think that he's stuck in Chicago. Then he decides to walk home. He assures her, "Whatever I say, you won't come into it." After he leaves, she stands at the window and watches "dust-covered, bewildered people, some crying, drifting up the avenue, lots of them, like refugees from war." And even through the sealed windows she can smell "the asbestos-smoke-gasoline fuel, slight airplane, slight bonfire reek."

Ludo has canceled the launch party for the magazine and tells Marina, "We are completely fucked."
The magazine cover of the issue that was to have been, with the title in black capitals and the logo -- he'd help design it -- of an all-seeing eye, lay on top of the pile. Already, with its vermilion, orange, and yellow graphic, a sunburst, a remarkable photograph of a sunburst, the idea having been that they were exploding upon the scene, illuminating truths, and different, down to the images, from the rest; already it looked out of date and faintly forlorn, like some child's abandoned artwork. 
Marina is the one who realizes that it isn't all about Ludo and his doomed magazine: "I think that boy DeVaughn's mother works in the towers." And later, when they walk to Union Square and see the "missing" posters that have begun to appear, he refers to them as "necrophiliac pornography.... what good does it do to pretend they'll all come home...? They're all fucking dead, Marina. Dead." He decides that it would make a good cover story:
"About how in this country everybody wants a happen 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.... The bubble's burst, now. It's over. We're fucked."
In Watertown, Judy waits for word from Bootie. Finally, she calls the number for Julius's sublet, but gets only the answering machine with Julius's voice on it. Later she calls again, and Julius answers to tell her that he didn't know a thing about Bootie except that he has moved to Brooklyn and didn't leave a phone number. When she doesn't hear from Bootie by Thursday she calls Murray, who says he'll ask Marina to go check on him. And then she asks what it smells like in the city. He tells her that it's too far away from where they live, and she says, "But it's going to smell like death, isn't it? Soon, if it doesn't already? A great big grave like that. It's going to smell like death."

Marina and Julius go to Fort Greene to look for Bootie, but the neighbor doesn't know where he is and only reluctantly agrees to look for the passkey to his room. They are shocked to find it contains only the rumpled sheets that he still from Julius, a computer and a few postcards on the wall. His suitcases are in the closet. They decide to try the temp agency. Marina tells Julius that she had said to Ludo that they were bound to know someone in the towers, and that DeVaughn's mother, who worked on the hundred and first floor is missing. She takes a Kleenex from her pocket and observes, "Do you realize, when I put this Kleenex in my pocket, the world was a completely different place?" At the temp agency they learned that Bootie was supposed to have gone to work at a financial firm on Cedar Street, a few blocks from Ground Zero, the day after Labor Day. A manager had let him have an advance of his pay because he was so desperate.

In fact, Bootie is starting a new life in Miami. On Sept. 11 he had been late to work and when he got off the subway he discovered what had happened. "That was when Bootie started walking. He had Musil in a plastic bag, his fingers slick upon the handles, and he had fog, or dust, or something on his glasses, but he loosened his tie and undid the top button and he walked, uptown." He had in his pocket the remaining cash from the advance he had been given. He thinks of the events as "The Tower of Babel tumbling. An end to false idols. And ... surely even Murray, above all Murray, would be toppled by this." And he realizes that it's also a way of putting an end to Bootie Tubb.

He spends the night in Central Park and when the Port Authority bus terminal reopens, he buys a ticket for Miami: "it was the farthest and earliest one could go; and it was, in the bargain, a warm destination for his aching body." When he reaches there, he changes his name: He takes the first name Ulrich from Musil, and decides that the most appropriate last name is New: Ulrich New. "Ulrich would fashion the reality inside his head and then, when the time was right, would give birth to it, would make them all at last understand, would take them by surprise."

The week before Thanksgiving, Judy arranges a memorial service for Bootie. She has decided to sell the house and leave Watertown. Murray, Annabel and Marina will be attending, but not Marina's husband, who is in England. Marina is upset that Ludo won't be with her, but he is interviewing for a job, since The Monitor has been scrubbed: "nobody wanted such a thing in this new world, a frivolous, satirical thing.... So much for taking New York by storm. So much for revolution. The revolution belonged to other people now, far away from them, and it was real." To add to Ludo's woes, Murray has had "a resurgence of celebrity" because of demands for his opinions.

Danielle has taken everything very hard: She is in therapy and on antidepressants. "Marina felt that she had lost her, that the Danielle she had always known had been vacuumed out, and only a flat, monosyllabic shell remained." Marina had asked her to go with them to the memorial service for Bootie, but Danielle rejected the idea, saying that she was planning to go away somewhere for a while.

Julius seems to have recovered mentally from his experience with David. "He seemed in all aspects more sober ... -- more cynical if that were possible.... The welt on his cheek, still fairly fresh, gave him a rakish aspect that amused him when it didn't depress him. He said it clearly made him more alluring -- men commented on it, as if it were a beauty mark," though it bothers him that he would always "carry David's mark on him, a brand." He also agrees to come with her to Watertown, because he'd called Bootie fat and because he'd had to make him move out.
"Do you think," Julius said, "that he's somehow a better person than we are because he's dead?"

"Because of how he died, you mean?"

"Because he was miserable, and now he's dead. Whereas we -- well, in the great scheme of things, let's face it, we've always been fucking lucky, and have just kept right on."

"I know Danielle thinks he was a better person.... From how she talks about him. 'Gravitas,' 'ambition,' 'integrity.' You know."

"She's idealizing adolescence. That's so her. You know, torn between Big Ideas and a party. She's always been that way.... We just want to be at the Party of Big Ideas. Ideally, to throw it." 
Murray had gone home on 9/11 and waited for Annabel to arrive. She did so in the evening, with DeVaughn, whom she helped make a poster of his mother. But when Murray tried to explain why he was there rather than stuck in Chicago, she said, "No. You chose to come home. That's all I need to know.... It doesn't matter. Maybe someday, okay? But not now." She busied herself with DeVaughn instead. He called Danielle several times, and left a message the first two times.
In the days that followed, he was eaten by her silence, more invasively than he might have been by any words; and although, by the time her message came -- on his cell, a week later: "Please could you leave me alone" -- he was not surprised, neither was he liberated. He found himself, unhealthily, obsessed.
He finds himself punished by both women's silence, wondering what Annabel "thought, or knew, or imagined." So he turned to writing and speaking about the events, arguing "in favor of understanding rather than blind hostility." When a TV interviewer asked him why he was not more bellicose because of Bootie's presumed death, his calm response was seen as "a mark of the man's immovable integrity; and Murray couldn't help but be aware of the irony that Bootie's death had granted him greater nobility." He also went back to work on his book, aware that "the tragedy would completely reshape his endeavor: how to live was a different question, now. More urgent. Less answerable. He would begin again, and would write, he knew, a better book because of it." At the memorial service, he becomes aware of people he had known in Watertown, and of the drabness of the place that he and Bootie had both felt compelled to flee.

Danielle's depression leads her to the brink of suicide, starting to swallow pills she has collected by washing them down with what's left of Murray's Scotch. But she decides instead to call her mother, who arrives and takes her to South Beach, where she begins to recover.
She had a film about liposuction to make. It seemed, in some lights, trivial, but it wasn't really. By the time it was finished, people would be tired of greater tragedies, and would be ready to watch it again. Mostly, people's tragedies were small. She'd be doing the right thing.
One evening they go out to dinner and she notices one of the waiters: "A gesture. A particular, fisty way of pushing glasses up by the nose. A particular arc of the arm. He was standing in the gloom by the doorway to the lobby, in a uniform, black and faintly zen, with a mandarin collar. No curls, his head almost shaven, and thinner; but it had to be." She accosts him: "Bootie Tubb. What are you doing here?" He claims his name is Ulrich, and finally, after she ask how he can leave his family thinking he's dead, he responds: "I'm just ... surviving. I'm doing what I've got to do to survive.... Frederick doesn't exist; and for me, for Ulrich, you don't exist. I don't have to explain anything." She insists that he does.
He was angry now, she could tell. He almost spat at her. "I needed to go. I would be dead, otherwise. I needed -- I haven't done anything wrong. If I would've killed myself otherwise, then I'd be dead, really dead. Maybe that would be better. Then would you be satisfied?"
She says no, and he apologizes for "the confusion." He says of Murray, "he isn't who you thought he was, is he?" She replied, "I don't even know that. I'm not sure I know who I think I am." He wishes her good luck and she returns to her table where she tells her mother it was "Just someone I thought I knew."

He goes back to his room and packs, preparing to move on. He leaves the volume of Musil behind.
This time, he was ready. This person in motion was who he was becoming: it was something, too: a man, someday with qualities. Ulrich New. Great geniuses have the shortest biographies, he told himself; and take them by surprise. Yes. He would.

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