By Charles Matthews

Thursday, January 13, 2011

2. The Emperor's Children, by Claire Messud, pp. 34-67

The Emperor's Children (Vintage)March. Chapter Five: Poetry Makes Nothing Happen; Chapter Six: The Pope Is Sick; Chapter Seven: "Introducing Murray Thwaite" by Roanne Levine (newspaper staff); Chapter Eight: An American Scholar; Chapter Nine: Rumpelstiltskin.
Marina's father, Murray Thwaite, gives a lecture (at Columbia, we deduce later) on the antiwar movement of the '60s and '70s and afterward is introduced to a student, Roanne Levine, who wants to interview him for the student newspaper. The fact that she is "quite pretty" holds Murray's attention, so they go to a bar accompanied by her professor, Eli Triplett, where she asks him questions and he criticizes her choice of drink, a White Russian: "'More a food than a drink, my dear girl,' Thwaite observed." When she leaves, he asks for her phone number. Then he returns to his apartment on Central Park West, where he steps in some cat vomit left by "the Pope, their seventeen-year-old bony Abyssinian."
Central Park West
Danielle has returned from Australia, and when she has has recovered from jet lag and learned that her project on the Aborigines was a no-go, she telephones the Thwaites to get Marina's number in Stockbridge. But Marina answers the phone and explains "about Julius's visit, the big snowstorm, how they had both felt freaked and claustrophobic in the house, and how she had offered to drive him home to town." Then she decided to stay because her father had invited her to accompany him to a dinner party. Her mother, Annabel, seldom went to public events, "and sometimes people who were unaware of the bond between Murray and Marina mistook her for his trophy wife."

Danielle tells her that since the Australian project has been canceled, she's thinking of doing "something about the current wave of satirical press and its role in shaping opinion. You know, about the blurring of left and right politics in pure contrarianism. People who aren't for anything, just against everything.... The Onion moved here, and there's the New York Observer, and McSweeney's, and there's a new paper starting up later this year, with this Australian guy I met over there.... My idea is that it's kind of like Russia a hundred years ago, the nihilists, right? Like in Dostoevsky and Turgenev."

Marina invites Danielle to come to dinner at her parents', but when Danielle arrives, Marina is having her hair cut. The Thwaites' apartment, on Central Park West in the upper Eighties, is "a delicious and resplendent haven." Murray greets her, and they chat while wait for Marina to return. "She could not know, of course, that she resembled Roanne Levine, but with a slightly smaller mouth, better breasts, and without the aggravating laugh. She could not know that Marina's father was seeing her as if for the first time."

Annabel Thwaite arrives before Marina, and they discuss what to do about dinner. They decide to order Chinese. "Danielle had the peculiar sensation of having usurped her friend's role in the Thwaite family, and more than that, of having usurped it at some moment in the distant past, a decade or more ago; she felt like a teenager, as she used to feel in the kitchen of her parents' house in Columbus (before the divorce, of course)." She feels like she needs to rescue Marina from living with her parents. "Her own life -- a studio on West Twelfth Street in which the foot of her bed ended only four feet from her so-called kitchen -- seemed to her Spartan enough.... The idea that at thirty Marina couldn't point even to a futon or a folding chair and claim it as her own was perhaps, in some vanished ethos, admirable; but it was also faintly pathetic."

Annabel does all the prep work for dinner, with Danielle's help, but without Murray's or Marina's, even though Annabel was "the only one among them who had put in a day at an office." She was the founder of a non-profit organization that works with social services, and she tells about the day spent with a fourteen-year-old boy who was in foster care because of an abusive stepfather, but who himself pushed a foster mother down the stairs and broke both her legs.

After dinner she and Marina go to Marina's bedroom. "'I feel guilty,' Danielle went on, 'making extra work and then not helping.' What she meant was that she felt guilty about how little Marina had helped." She asks Marina if everything is going okay: "This. Everything. The book. Living at home, for God's sake. It can't be easy." She suggests that Marina could get a job, which is the furthest thing from Marina's mind. But they wind up talking about Julius.

Roanne Levine's article about Murray appears in the newspaper, and Messud perfectly captures the stiff and formulaic style of a journalistic profile. We learn some important details from it, however: Murray is sixty years old, a monthly columnist for The Action, a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, and has "written or edited twelve books, including Rage in the System and Underground Warfare in Latin America. He was born in Watertown, New York, in 1940, and the subsequent reference to the recently inaugurated George W. Bush dates the action of the novel in 2001. He graduated from Harvard in 1961 and had a Fulbright to Paris and traveled around Europe for a year afterward, during which he began writing as a freelancer for the Boston Globe. He married Annabel Chase in 1968 and Marina, their only child, was born in 1970. He detests Bill Clinton -- "This guy has set us back twenty years" -- as well as Bush -- "our puppet dictator by decree" who "has fewer brains than my Abyssinian cat. An exceptionally gifted feline, by the way."

Frederick "Bootie" Tubb, who is Murray's nephew, is soaking in the bathtub reading David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. His mother, who is Murray's sister, is teaching high school. He felt "at once safe and oppressed in his bath, wanting to stay there all afternoon and wanting to escape forever at the same time."
His left wrist wavered under the full burden of the book, but he did not drop it. Maybe he could read just half of it? Would that be enough? Because he had a stack of several other novels he'd assigned himself to get through by June, and they were long, too: Moby-Dick, Gravity's Rainbow, War and Peace. The very thought of them made him sleepy.
Bootie had dropped out of college at Oswego after a revelation: "This is a farce. I am living, we are all living, a complete farce." He had gone to Oswego even though he had been accepted at Harvard because Harvard had failed to offer him a scholarship, "just a load of complicated forms to fill out and the promise of a mountain of debt." But he never told his mother he'd been accepted, because he knew she would try to find a way to make it work but "she would end up with her head in her hands at the kitchen table because it simply couldn't be managed." So he told the high school guidance counselor "that he really wanted to go to Oswego because it was close by, and he didn't want some stupid, snooty private college, that he'd only applied to prove to himself he could get in, and please not to mention to his mom about Harvard because she'd be after him to go there." At Oswego he realized his mistake:
He knew that at Harvard there were probably some people caught in the Land of Lies, but he knew, too, that there would be -- or rather, as it didn't matter now, that there would have been -- other people, serious people, like himself.
So he decided to educate himself. And now he decides that the only place to complete his education is New York. "He didn't know many people in New York, beyond Uncle Murray and Aunt Annabel. He wanted them, to be close to them, to be granted access to their mysterious world." But he has no money, and now he is thinking of selling his '89 Civic.

Julius has taken a job as a temp, working in an office with a "spread of desks and low partitions that so resembled a human parking lot." He feels degraded but needs the money: "It was too shaming: he couldn't expose this vulnerability, this rank need for cash, even to his dearest friends." And then he meets his boss, David Cohen:
Again, Julius's expectations were confounded: Cohen -- "David, please" -- was not a fifty-year-old with a paunch, a wedding ring embedded in his puffy fourth finger, and the whiff of Metro North [i.e., the commuter train to Connecticut] on his clothes, but rather a slender, familiar-looking young man with trendy glasses and a bespoke suit who met Julius's gaze with a quizzical expression. Above all, Julius was aware of two discomfiting facts: Cohen -- David -- was younger than he, Julius; and he was gay.
The firm is "engaged in middle man activity, the procuring of rights." And Julius reflects that David "probably would ;have been shocked to realize that his secretary was, in some public way, more powerful than he. Julius could stop thousands of people from buy a book or seeing a film. He did it all the time." And so Julius "determined to attach himself to David, to exploit the delicate current of electricity that ran between them, and in the course of his week at Baker, Zellman and Weaver, to learn from his boss.... Julius decided to charm David, to stifle his own stirrings of embarrassment at his minion's role, and to strut out on Mr. Cohen's arm before Friday night."

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