By Charles Matthews

Sunday, January 16, 2011

5. The Emperor's Children, by Claire Messud, pp. 158-187

The Emperor's Children (Vintage)May. Chapter Twenty: Julius's Dilemma; Chapter Twenty-one: Awards Night; Chapter Twenty-two: Enough About Us.
David has gone to Scarsdale to see his family, and Julius has yielded to temptation and made a date with "another, unknown man, summoned over the Internet and known only as Dale, a stallion (or so he promised) and a fitness instructor (or so he claimed), a guy whose moniker was SweetCheeks and who had promised an encounter both sensational and discreet." But now Julius is worried that David will return before the encounter can be consummated. He knows he is endangering his relationship with David, but he also finds casual sex a habit that's hard to  break: "Could one not be Pierre and Natasha at the same time?" Besides, he likes the "titillation of the risk of being caught," which reminds him of when he was a teenager and "his parents had thought him at the movies at the mall, while in reality he trawled the parking lot behind a bar called The Hub."

Dale turns out to be "a pasty-faced man of Julius's own age, with a near-shaven head, a bristly dun tickler on his chin, and a speckling of metal studs around his lobes." They bathe together, take some of David's cocaine, put some porn on, and have sex on the living room floor. Julius bathes again, tidies up, and waits for David. "In the wake of this encounter, Julius felt not sated, not guilty -- opposing but mutually viable emotions. Rather, he felt sad, and tired." He makes a "Grand Marnier-frothed mousse" for David, who arrives late, at ten-thirty. Julius makes a little scene, which then results in "eminently satisfying sex, a tad rough perhaps, but excitingly so, with the man who was absolutely his lover and -- at least for now, as Dale's visit had amply proven -- all that he should want."

Murray is receiving an award at an elaborate function, and Danielle is wearing a cleavage-exposing crimson dress that Marina had picked out for her. The event is a "Hollywood version of old New York" with everyone gathering in a hotel lobby that "had a slightly faux Victorian aura." Marina arrives on her father's arm, "and at the sight of his lips practically upon his daughter's hair, Danielle felt herself envious anew. She haddn't allowed herself fully to consider how she might respond to father and daughter together, now that she had, in some small, clandestine way, separate relationships with either of them." Actually, she's not entirely certain what sort of relationship she has with Murray, with whom she is to meet for a drink two days later. His e-mail correspondence has succeeded in being ambiguous enough that she wonders if she "had just imagined, invented -- how pathetic! -- the underlying flirtation."

When they get together in the crowd, Danielle asks Marina if Julius is coming to the event. "He didn't mention it, so I guess not. Part of the ongoing Invisible Man act -- imagine him, missing this? I'm seeing him later this week, though." Which annoys Danielle a little, who says, "I think I'm being cut out of his loop." When Marina observes that Julius's relationship with David must be really serious for him to give up "all this," Danielle scoffs at the event: "Look at these people. Do we really want to be like this? All smarmy and self-congratulatory?" Her denunciation of the superficiality of the occasion continues in a tone that reminds one of Bootie's criticism of the grade-grubbing students at Oswego and Amherst: "Look at all these preening clowns, dolled up in their Sunday best, everyone wanting to be more important than the next guy -- it's gross?" And she is annoyed when Marina responds with "an obtuse devotion to the more obvious tokens of status": "Don't you want to be more important than the next guy? You, of all people?"

Danielle is also annoyed at Marina's defense of the scene by pointing out that her father pretends not to care about such things, but actually does because "you have to care, or you won't succeed.... You won't succeed, for example, carping like that." Danielle has just suffered a setback at work because her boss has turned down her proposal, drawn from her conversation with Ludo, that a "revolution" is in the works, telling her: "There isn't revolution in a little clever sarcasm, Danny. It takes a lot more than that."

At this point, Marina spots Ludo, who looks less "scrawny" than he did when she first saw him at the Met. Danielle tells her that she suggested to Ludo that he should offer her a job. Ludo sees them and makes his way through the crowd. He tells Danielle that he saw the seating plan for the dinner and switched cards so that she is sitting next to him. He then turns his attentions to Marina.
Danielle could see something peculiar happening to Marina, a physical self-consciousness that made her more gangly, and less present. It was Marina's particular equivalent of Danielle's adjusting her neckline. Which meant she fancied him.

The tables in the ballroom are decorated with big showy flowers -- "birds of paradise, waratahs and kangaroo paw" -- "vulgar blips of red, orange, and violet [that] towered over the guests as if in parody of their grotesquerie." Ludo points out women in the crowd who remind him of the flowers. When she protests that she's wearing red, he compliments the dress, which she tells him Marina chose. She "spoke without thinking, then wished she hadn't." He compliments Marina's taste, but says he wishes he could overlook her father: "I have greater reason to malign him when the city's media luminaries come together like so many sheep in order publicly to reward his mediocrity." She mounts a defense: "I approve of Murray Thwaite, and feel he's diminished by accepting this award, because these people, this jury of so-called peers, is so appalling and mediocre." They continue to talk about the people there and their role in creating false values.
"Well, if you can't escape the system in any way, then what's the good of even thinking about it?"

"You forget your Napoleon, Danielle, my dear."

"Here we go again."

"Don't roll your eyes. If you can't escape the system,you must simply become the system."

"Alter it from within."

"No, not at all. Not 'within.' The very notion is fallacious. We've been over this before: You become the system. You become what people want to be."
"If you can guess what that is." 

Ludovic all but sneered. "Tonight, absurdly, it would seem to be Murray Thwaite." 
Danielle offers to introduce him to Murray after the speeches which are beginning, and which demonstrate perfectly -- even Murray's -- the banality and mediocrity of the event. He says the usual things about "integrity" and "pursuing truth" and "changing times, ... a culture increasingly preoccupied with form over substance, with the anointing of celebrities whom audiences were all too keen to worship" -- himself being an anointed celebrity there to be worshiped, eliciting a hiss from Ludo: "Kitsch. Pure kitsch." He does the usual self-deprecation of someone who is about to be given an award: "I grew up questioning the very notion of awards and prizes, the promise that any received ideas or individuals could be trusted."

He quotes a slogan of the Parisian revolutionaries of 1968: "'Rêve plus evolution equals Révolution' -- dream plus evolution equals revolution." This causes Ludo to scoff: "And as time has amply shown us, dreaming brings about no revolution at all, matey." During the applause he tells Danielle, "It's not even what he thinks people want to hear -- it's precisely what he thinks they don't want to hear, some sort of cod liver oil for the soul. They don't want to hear it, so it must be good for them. Preposterous. Studiedly insulting, which seems to me far worse than unwittingly insulting."

But Danielle also realizes that although Ludo is scornful of Murray, he's also eager to meet him.
Danielle thought, "Code. Napoleonic code," and this seemed, although in somewise far from apt, nevertheless perfectly to explain the man. This alternative morality, this still -- to her at least -- unreadable code, was Seeley's means to domination. To get everyone to see another way, his way, and then to make that way  the standard. Then to have them -- all of society's little Napoleons, all of us, she thought, under his sway. Her eagerness to dismiss Murray Thwaite's speech as absurd, to interpret his genuine courage in questioning the academy as a self-interested manipulation -- this, she thought, was Seeley-speak seeping unbidden into her brain. 
This is a good time to remember that this scene in the novel is set in May 2001, just as the Bush administration, with its cadre of neoconservatives, is beginning to take hold and to enforce the idea articulated by Karl Rove in response to reporter Ron Suskind, whom Rove labeled a member of the "reality-based community": "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

Afterward, Danielle, Marina, and Ludo await Murray's arrival. Marina arranges for Ludo to sit up front in the town car they will take home. The "dapper driver" is named Hussein. Finally, Murray arrives, "surrounded by well-wishers who fell away one by one as if choreographed":
"Like some kind of god," whispered Seeley. Danielle looked at him, and looked at Marina looking at him, and wondered what on earth he was really trying to say.
A few days later, Marina keeps her date with Julius, who is severely hung over and whose itchy, runny nose betrays his increasing coke use. She is telling him that Frederick is creeping her out: She found him lurking in the kitchen after they returned from the awards ceremony with "six or seven people, pretty drunk, by then, in a festive way." He claimed that he hadn't been asleep and that he had come to get a drink in the kitchen, which was still dark, "so finally I said did he want to come join us -- weird enough in itself, but manners dictated -- and he says yes. Isn't that creepy?" Julius points out that he's "entitled to flash of glamour" and that he's young.

They find a coffee shop, and she brings up the fact that they don't see him much anymore: "Danielle and I have been thinking we're not male enough, or not gay enough, for your David." He avoids the issue, claiming that David is busy and that they're still discovering their relationship. She persists, and he brings up "the Natasha/Pierre distinction" again:
"Well, remember what happens to Natasha at the end? And nobody ever likes it, they all say, 'But where did the real Natasha go?' But the point is that she likes it. She's happy. That's the point."

Marina sighed. "How many times do I have to remind you, Julius? I haven't read the fucking novel."
Thus confirming Bootie's suspicion.

Marina now reveals that she's "interested in someone," who turns out to be Ludo. And that Ludo has asked if she would be interested in a job. It hasn't gone any further than that yet. "Do you want to go to bed with him or work for him?" Julius asks, and she replies, "Couldn't I do both?" Which reminds Julius of the start of his relationship with David, so he advises her, "not the best way to begin, maybe." And then he asks her a key question, "How does Danny feel about this guy?" Which Marina tries to evade, but finally asserts, "I don't think she feels anything about him at all.... She doesn't fancy him, as you put it. She'd have told me, if she did." Julius is not completely convinced of that, but advises Marina to follow through on the job offer.

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