By Charles Matthews

Friday, January 14, 2011

3. The Emperor's Children, by Claire Messud, pp. 68-115

The Emperor's Children (Vintage)March. Chapter Ten: Talking to a Grown Child. May. Chapter Eleven: A Mother Knows Best; Chapter Twelve: Danielle's List; Chapter Thirteen: Great Geniuses; Chapter Fourteen: All for Love.
Marina does the unthinkable: She enters her father's study, where he is working on his secret magnum opus that "would at last and indisputably elevate his name from the ranks of competent, even courageous journalists and thoughtful columnists to the rare air of immortals." It is to be a work of "philosophy," and is titled How to Live. "Annabel knew of this manuscript, the way a child knows about Narnia, with a mixture of hope and incredulity." Marina merely thinks of it as "Dad's Thing." Rumors of it have also leaked from Marina to her circle of friends, who think of it as "Murray Thwaite's Thing."

Marina is there because she has been unsettled by Danielle's suggestion that she get a job. And although she has broken an unwritten household rule by disturbing her father in his study, he is not upset:
He was, in so many ways, extremely proud of her -- not least of her beauty, which was, to him, each time a surprise, as though unwittingly he had thrown a perfect pot, or created a perfect bonsai -- but she could be, she was being, trying.
She points out to him that she is thirty, and at thirty he was already famous. She mentions Danielle's suggestion that she get a job, but she doesn't have anything particular in mind, which makes him "suddenly [see] his daughter as a monster he and Annabel had created -- they, and a society of excess." When he asks what she wants to do with her life, she remains vague: "something important." He thinks immediately of Roanne, who was ten years younger than Marina and not nearly so naïve. And when he suggests that she find a job in something that interests her, "Just a job," she tells him, "I worry that that will make me ordinary, like everybody else."

When she leaves, he asks her for Danielle's e-mail address, and then locks away his manuscript. "She had -- this was, of course, what one's children did -- ruined his stride, spoiled his momentum."

Three months later, Danielle's mother, Randy Minkoff, has come to New York from her home in Florida on a visit, and Danielle is taking her through the Metropolitan Museum. Randy is "ebullient, even overbearing," and "Danielle rather pitied her mother, stout and plucky and 'done,' beetling toward sixty as though she enjoyed it." Randy is impatient with Danielle's progress toward settling down, belittling her daughter's tiny studio apartment and reminding her that when Randy was her age she had two children "running around the house buck naked, screaming, if you can believe it."

Marina has been invited to join them for lunch "at the Metropolitan's swankier restaurant." Randy is unaware "that Danielle's dear friend told her own mother that Randy was 'really sweet, but, you know, vulgar in that Miami way." As she and Randy are standing in line for the restaurant, Danielle suddenly spots "the high, clear forehead of Ludovic Seeley," who is there with a young Eurasian woman. She has already scoped out the fact that Seeley is in town, and even located his e-mail address, partly on the pretext that she might write an article about the new magazine, The Monitor, that he is to be editing.

Marina arrives just as Danielle is telling Randy that her father, from whom Randy is divorced, claims to have lost twenty pounds on the Atkins diet. Randy is "charmed, a little daunted, as ever, by the Thwaite aura and sophistication, by a warmth that nevertheless carried about it an untraceable but distinct tinge of superiority."

While the three women are choosing a dessert, Ludovic Seeley suddenly appears at their table. Danielle introduces him, and finds out that the Eurasian woman is being interviewed for a job. He claims to have lost Danielle's e-mail address, or he would have contacted her sooner, so she provides it, claiming that she wanted his too, so she could get "'in touch ... about a project I'm working on -- so this is actually very ...' She trailed off, trying to make the pen write. 'Serendipitous,' finished Marina, showing her teeth, looking straight at Seeley. 'I think that's the word.'"

Later, in Randy's motel room, Randy indicates to Danielle that she liked "That guy, at lunch. The one with the sexy accent." And she says, "A mother sometimes knows best, Danny. I'm just mentioning, for the record, that I liked him." That evening, in her apartment "on the fifteenth floor of a white-brick 1960s building, the tallest of its kind for some blocks in all directions," Danielle also listens to a message from Marina on her answering machine: "I'm dying to know more about that Australian guy."

Danielle's apartment is her oasis, with its "wall of books, both read and unread, all of them dear to her not only in themselves, their tender spines, but in the moments or periods they evoked," including some "which suggested to her that she was, or might be, a person of seriousness, a thinker in some seeping, ubiquitous way." Her collection of CDs reflects "not so much an individual spirit as the generic tastes of her times: Madonna, the Eurythmics, Tracy Chapman from her adolescence; Cecilia Bartoli, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Mitsuko Uchida; more recently Moby and the posthumously celebrated folk-singing woman from Washington, D.C., who had died of a melanoma in her early thirties, and whose tragic tale attracted Danielle more than her soft covers of familiar songs."

Danielle sets out to make a list of all the things that are on her mind, "her competing anxieties, to find a hierarchy and a rhythm for them.
  • First, though she doesn't want to, she has to call her mother and wish her good night in her room at the uptown Days Inn. 
  • Second, she doesn't want to call Marina because she doesn't want to talk about Ludovic Seeley. 
  • Third, she "seemed to have struck up an e-mail correspondence" with Murray Thwaite. "Their exchanges felt to her innocent -- he didn't flirt with her, as she understood the word; if anything, his tone was professorial, avuncular. But there was something not quite right about it. 
  • Fourth, her mother has made an appointment for both of them at a nail salon that Randy read about in Vogue, and it conflicts with a meeting at work, and she's afraid if she tells her mother that she can't make the appointment, "that Randy Minkoff would crumple and cry. Than which there was no more prolonged and exhausting scene in the Minkoff family repertoire." 
  • Fifth, "there was the matter of Julius" and "his new boyfriend, this mysterious David, who'd been on the scene for what? Two months now? Was it longer?" She was "vaguely indignant that Julius, of all people, who had always seemed to her far shakier a romantic prospect than anyone else she knew, had finally, apparently, withdrawn so firmly from the running." 

Bootie Tubb has been in Amherst, Mass., for three weeks. He finally got a job with his brother-in-law and saved up four hundred and sixty-eight dollars which he added to the six hundred and some dollars in his savings account. He put the money in a manila envelope, took his desktop computer, and "decided to keep the Honda, a portable hotel, as he saw it." He told his mother that he was going to visit his friend Donald from high school and see if he can get admitted to U Mass.
he left most of his books, including the David Foster Wallace, which he'd never finished and had never returned to the library, and Gravity's Rainbow, at which a quick glance had told him he would not read soon, but not Emerson, nor War and Peace
After three weeks in Amherst he has blown a lot of his money buying drinks for his friends at a bar near the U Mass campus. He is living in a squalid old house with four other students, including Donald, existing "largely on cereal (Frosted Flakes and Golden Grahams), and toast with peanut butter, and macaroni and cheese from a box, of the chemically orange sort." But now school is ending and two of the young men in the house are leaving town, so if Bootie is going to stay he will have to start chipping in on the rent -- "three-fifty a month for Jump's room, and, like, we can't get by without it, you know?"

So Bootie is faced with getting a job as a waiter or a grocery store clerk or pursuing his dream of New York by getting in touch with his uncle Murray Thwaite. In his copy of Emerson he reads, "Great geniuses have the shortest biographies. Their cousins can tell you nothing about them. They lived in their writings, and so their house and street life was trivial and commonplace." This inspires him to get in touch with his uncle, even though he had not seen Murray Thwaite since he, Annabel, and Marina had come to Watertown for his father's funeral. Bootie was fifteen then.
Uncle Murray had made much of him, had leaned by the fireplace in the living room with an elbow on the mantel and a scotch in hand, and had quizzed Bootie -- he'd called him Fred -- about what his plans were, after high school, and whether he'd thought about journalism.... This line from Emerson surely was a sign, pointing him to his cousins, who did not yet know him.
Julius and David have been to Long Island for the weekend, but Julius has been uncomfortable with David's friends: "Not one of their fellow guests had raised a familiar eyebrow when Julius was introduced, as clear an indication as he could have wanted that there were no Village Voice readers in their midst: they were merely a posse of Wall Street Journalers who might sneak a risqué peek at Out on weekends." But Julius maintained his composure for David's sake because "he was consciously striving, in this instance, to be Natasha rather than Pierre, to remain a sparkling, light-handed companion behind whose mercurial liveliness he had to trust David could discern, when he was ready, the makings of a devoted partner."
Pitt Street, Lower East Side
David was everything he had always known he wanted, with, to boot, an alluring edge of temper. He liked to drink; he liked, in an almost naïve way, the excitement of cocaine, the mechanics of it and the illicit aura. Julius, less naturally inclined to drugs, was interested, rather, in David's interest. And David thrilled to the notion that he was "keeping" Julius, that Julius was his "geisha" -- it was a word used by David, vaguely offensive to Julius, Eurasian after all, in its random Orientalism, but he let it pass without comment.
But now David asks Julius to move in with him, which means Julius has to sublet his studio apartment. He packs up his clothes, but leaves behind his college edition of Proust in French and "the untouched two-volume Musil filched, years before, from the books department at the Voice; and he left, too, the long-abandoned manuscript of his novel, begun at about the time Marina had signed her famous book contract."

Julius's apartment is on Pitt Street, on the Lower East Side, and he needs to sublet it to "someone prepared to lie to the landlord, to keep the answering machine message unchanged, to receive mail elsewhere." He piles all his belongings into the cab and rides "uptown, across town, to the comparative social Everest that was Chelsea."

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