By Charles Matthews

Monday, January 17, 2011

6. The Emperor's Children, by Claire Messud, pp. 188-228

The Emperor's Children (Vintage)May. Chapter Twenty-three: A Helping Hand; Chapter Twenty-four: A Helping Hand (2); Chapter Twenty-five: A Helping Hand (3); Chapter Twenty-six: A Helping Hand (4);  Chapter Twenty-seven: Floating; Chapter Twenty-eight: I See You; Chapter Twenty-nine: For Shame.
Murray has arranged his meeting with Danielle without having to account for it to his wife, who was at work, though it's clear that he thinks he might have to: there is an anticipatory guilt about the event, even though "this ritual -- the odd drink, the odd fling, the odd prolonged liaison -- was as much a part of him as Annabel, or Marina, or -- in an analogy that struck him as more apt -- as the Pope had been." Still, he is aware that "he ought not to be fantasizing about, ought not to be seducing, his daughter's best friend. Because she would be seduced, he was almost sure of it," thinking about "her milky cleavage" in the red dress.

She tells him she wasn't sure he would come, since he hadn't mentioned it at the party after the award, but he says, "I would never forget a date with you." They talk about Marina and whether she will finish her book. "Danielle's face was grave, and Murray reached out -- this was either the worst moment, or ideal -- to put his hand, large and reddened, upon her small, white one." She manages to extricate it, however, and to call him "Mr. Thwaite," which he corrects "emphatically" to "Murray, please, Murray."

She tells him she may have found a job for Marina with Ludovic Seeley, and he asks if Ludo is her boyfriend. "'Oh no, nothing like that,' but he noticed that she blushed." He observes that the name of Ludo's magazine, The Monitor, not only has "the Christian Science overtones, it was Napoleon's paper, as it happens. Suggests the boy has ambitions." He asks again if Ludo isn't her "secret paramour," and when she says no, he tells her "He'd be a lucky fellow." Then he orders another drink and persuades her to have one.

Judy Tubb is cleaning up Bootie's room and worrying about him. The fact that there's a cobweb dangling over his bed and that she has to stand on it seems to her to be an omen that he "might not come back. She knew this was silly, not logical." She has just talked on the phone with him and learned that Murray has hired him as his amanuensis: "Trust Murray to used a ten-cent word when a regular one would do. He meant secretary. That's what her brilliant boy would be doing. No shame in it, he'd said. Pound did it for Yeats, you know. 'My brother is no Yeats' had been her response, tart enough, she trusted, to suggest that she wasn't floundering in the conversation." She finds his dress shoes, "shiny as beetles, neatly pointing to the wall at the foot of the bed, in uncharacteristic order," and takes them to be "evidence of the nature of his plans before ever he left home."

Marina, on the phone with Danielle, tells her that Ludo is "incredibly sexy" and -- a word suggested by Danielle -- "magnetic." Danielle, who is obviously not excited by this turn of events, says, "Trot out the clichés for us." She has been having trouble persuading her boss that any of her ideas will work, and now Marina is gushing about the job with Ludo being made for her. She can also tell that Marina is lying down while she talks on the phone. "Marina sat up when she wasn't happy."

The job, Marina tells her is "editing a cultural section ... he wants essays, serious but controversial essay on cultural issues.... Questioning essays. Like ... a renegade appraisal of modern art, the New York art scene." Danielle recognizes the risk here: "You can commission people with nothing -- which means, everything -- to lose, and have them write blistering exposés that will ruin their carers forever.... Sort of the journalistic equivalent of being a meter maid." Marina bristles at Danielle's tone: "But somebody's got to tell people that the emperor has no clothes." But Danielle retorts, "Yeah, he gave me that line, too. It's oddly persuasive, for a minute or two." She nibbles at a hangnail and tears it too far: "a small,  live pain." She should have known that Marina would fall for Ludo.

Marina tells her that she's having supper with Ludo tomorrow night and will tell him whether she'll take the job. Danielle "ought to have known that Ludovic Seeley, in such matters, would be no more a revolutionary than the next guy. Of course they were having supper." She says Marina ought to commission an article from her cousin: "He could do something on spec, say; and if it was any good, it could launch him." But Marina is doubtful that "Frederick 'Bootie' Tubb is up to it." Danielle also suggests commissioning Julius, an idea that Marina is more receptive to: She has been "trying to figure out whether he's really getting everything he's ever wanted from this guy, or whether he's so bound up with his fantasy -- you know, a Long-Term Relationship -- that he's in the middle of some massive delusion." She says that when they met "he smelled a little funny to me.... Like medicine, or something.... I really don't think he's happy, you know. Even if he thinks he is."

After they hang up, Danielle goes back to work on her story ideas. She also checks her e-mail and finds one from Murray inviting her to meet a friend of his who might have an idea for a program about Guatemala. "Useless to her," but she accepts anyway and returns "to her ideas file. Fathers and daughters, she wrote. Men and women. And again: Ethics?"

Things are falling into place for Bootie after less than two weeks in New York: "a new life was forming, organically, as if it were fated.... Had he been given to imagining, this would've been the way he'd imagined it all." He has developed a major crush on Marina, and Murray has become his mentor. One afternoon Murray had come to his room, where Bootie was "sleepily reading Emerson," and invited him into his office where he spent an hour and a half "drinking scotch -- very slowly; he didn't care for the taste" and talking about his self-education program. He shyly asks if Murray will read some of his essays, and Murray agrees. He tells Murray that he dropped out of school because it "wasn't remotely scholarly. Not scholarly at all.... Because the educational system is a farce." He decides not to tell Murray about being accepted to Harvard and turning it down, however.

Murray encourages him about "the great future that's yours for the taking.... It's all a question of attitude, Fred, my dear. Attitude." And Bootie begins reading the books he's assigned himself as well as Murray's books. He has a challenge to his faith when he hears Ludo dissing Murray at the party as a "charlatan.... He couldn't fathom that Murray's favored and fortunate guests would speak of him this way." Then at the dinner table with just Murray and Annabel, he almost tells them about Harvard, and indicates that his mother doesn't really understand what he wants. Murray replies, "Your mother couldn't possibly be expected to understand the first thing about you.... She's a good woman, but she doesn't have any idea who you are."

Then Murray observes that Bootie will need a job to continue his studies, and discourages him that the jobs in New York can be "soul destroying" because it's so expensive: "So why not go back to Watertown, where you can live at home and read in peace?" Bootie's reply is that he's "prepared to do a soul-destroying job" in order to be in New York: "the point is to be in the city. To learn from the city. To learn from life, as much as from books." This is exactly what Murray wants to hear from him. So he says, "I'd propose to hire you as my secretary. My amanuensis, shall we say. Like Pound and Yeats. At a living wage, of course. A real job."

Murray offers him $30,000, which is "astronomical" to Bootie. He doesn't want to keep living at the Thwaites', but Marina had mentioned Julius's sublet, so he asks her about it. She tells him "his apartment was east of Alphabet City, miles downtown (this meant little to Bootie) with, she said, a dog of a commute to get up here." But to him it "sounds perfect."

Meanwhile, he sets about "as Murray had instructed, to memorize the mess in his uncle's study." He is working on that one day when Murray is in Connecticut giving a commencement address at a small college -- "it had fleetingly occurred to Bootie that his uncle could be considered, in this complicit with the farce of failed education. But he didn't dwell on it." But then he finds Murray's secret manuscript, which, "Bootie could tell, from the first sentences, was his uncle's greatest secret, his genuinely private endeavor, riskier by far than gossip, professional or personal, could ever be." So he reads the first paragraph, a somewhat wordy ramble about "the a priori of what life is, of what one should do with it," before "hurriedly snapping the folder, replacing it, with infinite care, slightly crooked in the drawer." He is afraid of being discovered by Aurora or Marina.
But he feared, above all, his own discovery: he feared what he might find. It might thrill and succor him, than which he had no greater desire. But -- although he couldn't have articulated it, just then -- he couldn't run the risk of disappointment.
Marina goes to work for Ludo, and a week later they have their first kiss.She naturally tells the unthrilled Danielle about it, how awkward Ludo was in accomplishing it: "This is a guy who can juggle ten jokes in an editorial meeting, keep a dozen journalists cowed and laughing at the same time. And then all of a sudden, he's a geek. So genuine. Honestly, tears welled up in my eyes. A tear, at least." Danielle scoffs at the word "genuine":  "The guy is an operator." She reminds her of his animosity toward Murray, but finally says, "I'm happy for you. Really." Marina senses the tension "and she decided that Danielle was just saying she was happy because it seemed the thing to say, because not to say it would be egregious. Marina wasn't sure whether there was merit simply in the saying: maybe sometimes pretense was the best you could hope for." 

Aurora, the maid, is annoyed because she can tell that Bootie has been messing in the piles of stuff in Murray's office: "she knows just from looking he's opened the drawers, maybe the locks, and if something is wrong." She's afraid she'll get blamed by Murray. "They all live in the house and pretend he is easy and lovable but really he is difficult, he is demanding and selfish and often angry, usually about selfish things, like where's my sandwich and why is the blue shirt in the closet." She can tell when he doesn't like someone, especially a woman, because he doesn't make the effort to flirt with them. An associate of Annabel's, Miss Roberts, came by yesterday with DeVaughn, one of their cases. "He was not, with her, a nice man. Mostly he did not like the boy, the black boy as big as a man, strong in the shoulders and fat in the middle." Miss Roberts asked if DeVaughn could stay there until Annabel returned, but "they did not have a bedroom now, because of the boy Frederick." But the thing that most strikes Aurora is "that everyone pretended that Mr. Murray was an easy man. Even with one another, they pretended."

Marina, under Ludo's influence, has returned to her book, and it has taken on a Ludovician character: "If you can't be a winner, you can make a winner, and if what you made is not what you wanted, then what, in the end, are you?" she writes, apropos the influence JonBenet Ramsey's mother had over her daughter. She has also cast it in the light of children's rebellion against their parents, which she has begun to see as "necessary" after talking things over with Ludo, who insists, "That it's impossible to see you clearly -- for your own self, most of all -- on account of the distortion of light created by your father." As they talked (in bed) about her book, he said, "Such a rich topic -- the surfaces and their depths, it's what we're all about. The tenor of our times." He says that getting the book off her back will also be a way of getting Murray off her back. "This is the way you'll escape the expectations you imagine that he as for you, and work your way toward being, well, free-standing."

Ludo has also found a title for the book: The Emperor's Children Have No Clothes, and imagined catalog copy for it (a perfect parody on Messud's part):
Marina Thwaite's groundbreaking debut book demystifies these complexes, unraveling them through the threads of our clothing, and more particularly of our children's clothes. In this brilliant analysis of who we are and the way it determines how our kids dress, Marina Thwaite reveals the forms and patterns that both are and lie beneath the fabric of our society. In so doing, she bares children, their parents, and our culture at large to an unprecedented and frank scrutiny, and in her truth-telling, shows us incontrovertibly that the emperor's children have no clothes.
She has essentially moved in with Ludo, installing "her laptop in one of the largely empty rooms in Ludo's apartment." At work he also bolsters her ego when she has moments of self-doubt or is challenged by other staff members.  

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