By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

8. The Emperor's Children, by Claire Messud, pp. 267-324

The Emperor's Children (Vintage)July. Chapter Thirty-five: Notes From Underground; Chapter Thirty-six: On the Grill; Chapter Thirty-seven: After Supper; Chapter Thirty-eight: "Murray Thwaite: A Disappointed Portrait"; Chapter Thirty-nine: The Fourth of July (1); Chapter Forty: The Fourth of July (2); Chapter Forty-one: The Fourth of July (3); Chapter Forty-two: Let Go; Chapter Forty-three: Finished.
Shaken by the encounter with Julius, and then by meeting Danielle on the street, Bootie decides to go to the Thwaites' apartment for a day or two. He is puzzled by Danielle: "He wanted to loathe her -- in principle, he knew he loathed her -- but her manner was kind, and sincere, and even though he maintained his chill (surely to her mystification, because how could she guess what he knew?), he felt guilty about it."

Murray Thwaite is not the only source of Bootie's disillusionment. He now sees New York as "rife with deceit, like the rot in the subway air." On the train he rereads the introduction to his article and finds it sentimental.
No: for the article to be any good, it had to do precisely the things of which Murray wrote so admiringly and with such promise, but which he himself did not live up to. It had to be precise, and calm and clear. It had to be patient, frank, substantiated. It had to be accessible and germane. It had to be true.
But to add to his foulness of mood, the train breaks down. "They were stopped twenty-three sweltering minutes, like lost miners, like spelunkers without egress, like dead men." He is so panicked by being trapped in the subway he draws blood by digging his nails into his left palm and develops "a headache of migraine proportions from the screaming inside his head."

In Stockbridge, Murray and Ludo are making conversation tensely. "Murray felt like a bear beside him, felt like grabbing him by the collar and shaking him senseless." And Marina tells him that Danielle has agreed to come for the day. "He'd never had an affair with a friend of his daughter's, everything so perilously -- so delectably -- near to the surface. And what was he thinking, to allow this reunion in Stockbridge, up till now always a sacred family ground?" Then Annabel tells him that DeVaughn has been arrested and she has to go to the city for the arraignment the next day. Ludo calls her a "sentimentalist" for trying to help someone so obviously a lost cause, which annoys Murray, especially when Ludo suggests that perhaps what DeVaughn needs is spiritual guidance: "I'd maintain that there are those for whom religion is essential.... Marx was quite right: an opiate. It's necessary." Annabel says she can't "encourage anyone to put store in something that seems to me clearly a figment. It would be a false hope." But Ludo argues, "I don't happen to believe. But clearly, for those who believe, it can. Put it another way: Could DeVaughn be any worse off?"

Marina succeeds in derailing this potentially explosive discussion by changing the subject. Later, in bed, she chides Ludo: "You wanted so much to meet him, but you disagree with him about everything.... You know,  before you marry me, you'll have to accept that I'm my father's daughter in most things." He retorts, "You need to separate yourself from your father. Put some distance between you." She asks if he means moving to Australia, but what he really means is agree with him.

Bootie is working on his article, the introduction to which asks the question, "Why is Murray Thwaite such a disappointment to me?" He is conscious of never having written an article before. "He wasn't quite sure what should be in it, wasn't sure either about the balance of facts and opinion." He Googles Murray and comes across the article by Roanne Levine, and finds "himself wondering, given its gush, whether she, too, had been seduced by his uncle."

He has decided not to mention Danielle in the article. "It was his concession to Annabel, of whom he was quite fond; and to Marina, too." He has left a mess in the apartment, and is surprised when Annabel shows up there. She, too, is surprised to find him, and asks, "could you please pick up before you go." Then she tells him that she's driving back to Stockbridge with Danielle and offers to take him, too. He declines. She also tells him that Marina and Ludo are engaged, which surprises him. He had thought that Danielle and Marina were vying for Ludo's attentions before he found out about Danielle and Murray. "He'd been a naïf, all those weeks ago, and the possibility of such goatishness hadn't occurred to him." He reflects further on the disillusionment he'd experienced since he felt like he'd been admitted to "the heady salons of wisdom and the freedom of intellectual discourse." It was like being "in Madame de Staël's living room, or in the court of Catherine the Great, or at Rahv's house after a Partisan Review meeting."

Julius had overslept and missed the train to Scarsdale, and when David calls he claims he was sick. Finally, after another day of putting off the trip he agrees -- "recognizing that his momentary yen for peace and solitude could easily result in the end of his relationship, he relented." The Cohens ignore it when he and David hold hands by the pool, something that he would never have dared in front of his own parents, and Julius behaves himself nicely. But on the train back he and David quarrel over his failure to show up earlier. And when he displays affection, David discourages him. So Julius reads the Arts section of the New York Times and learns "that one of his erstwhile rivals in the Village Voice office has published a favorably reviewed novel. "He wanted very powerfully, in that moment, to be with Marina or Danielle. With people who would understand all the different ways at once in which he felt horrible."

Danielle had not been looking forward to riding to Stockbridge with Annabel, but it turns out "that Daneille's repressive mechanisms were Yale-tight," and she "deemed it both pleasant and uncomplicated to inhabit Annabel's prelapsarian vision." They talk about the fact that the hearing on DeVaughn had not gone well, and Danielle "sensed that Annabel was deeply embarrassed with herself, that she felt she had failed a test." It turns out that Annabel is thinking about the argument with Ludo and the possibility that he was right. Danielle observes that "Ludovic is very good at making us all doubt ourselves and second-guess our decisions." She says, "He wants to be Napoleon, you know.... He wants people to follow him. He wants to revolutionize and and control their whole lives." This surprises Annabel, who says that despite their political disagreement, Ludo "has integrity." It's Danielle's turn to be surprised: "I'm not sure that's a word I would've used in connection with him."

Danielle is glad that Murray is not present when they arrive. "It was easier not to witness the Thwaites' reunion. Danielle wanted their affection -- or lack of it -- to be hidden from her." When she hears him coming downstairs, she "thought she could feel herself flush." But he's good at concealment: "his mask was so complete, so impenetrable, that Danielle wondered, fleetingly, if their intimacy were merely her imagining; wondered, too, if he thought she was a whore."

A storm comes up, and they watch as "a large branch at the bottom of the garden snapped and dropped, narrowly missing the pergola" where the wedding is going to be held. But then the weather improves and when Marina awakens Danielle after she takes a nap, the sun is out. Marina asks Danielle why she doesn't like Ludo, and Danielle denies it. Marina thinks that Danielle is too involved in her career to fall in love. "Danielle couldn't bear it. 'What if I told you I am in love.'" Which confirms the suspicions aroused in Marina when Danielle answered the phone "Beloved." She presses Danielle for more details, but all Danielle can say a that the relationship is "inappropriate." Which of course only provokes Marina further: "Do I know him?" "I don't think so. Let's leave it alone, okay?"

Since the weather has cleared up, Murray is barbecuing. Danielle, after two glasses of champagne, goes to talk to him at the grill, telling him, "You seem a dab hand at this."
He glanced at her, barely. "That I am. Marina probably told you, it's my chief culinary expertise." His voice sounded as though it were being recorded for radio, an iota too hearty. She wondered whether anyone else would have noticed." 
She returns to the house where she thinks, "I caused a thunderstorm with my passion and I sit here shaking under my skin and you don't notice because you're trying so hard not to notice" and wonders "how long can we sustain it, how long till the eruption, till the storm returns again and they can all see what it is, what it really is?" Later, when she is sitting in the dark, Murry comes up behind her "and placed his hand full on her crown like a warm cap. He said nothing, and was gone; but it was all she had wanted: benison."

In their room, Marina tells Ludo that she thinks Danielle is in love with him -- that he's the "inappropriate" person. Ludo tells her, "Maybe you're her inappropriate love object. Did you ever think of that? Not sexually, necessarily, although I wouldn't rule that out. But either way, you were at the center of her world, and now you aren't."

Julius and David have made up after the quarrel, although "Julius, at least, felt that things were altered." Two weeks after the trip to Scarsdale, on a Friday night, David doesn't come home and doesn't call, even though they are supposed to go to a party together. Julius calls David's cell phone and his office and gets no response. Furious at being neglected, he tosses clothes around, kicks a stack of magazines about, and dumps the contents of dresser drawers. Finally, at 11:30, he leaves for the part. "David was six unannounced hours late." No one at the party has seen or heard from him either, and Julius realizes, "It said something unnerving about him that he hadn't considered the possibility that something was wrong.... He realized he'd assume that David's absence was due to philandering because his own -- a few weeks earlier, for example, with the handsome Lewis -- had been due to just that."

He returns home at one. "The apartment smelled of French fries and gin. David sat at the table, his sleeves rolled up, his violet tie loosened and spotted with ketchup that looked like blood." A half-empty bottle of Tanqueray is open on the table. "I've had a bad day," David says. Julius, still not comprehending how bad, continues to fuss at David for not calling, for not being there for dinner or for the party. Finally, David tells him, "I got fired."

The firm is not making enough money, and nine people were let go. Julius still doesn't quite comprehend the magnitude of the situation although he apologizes and hugs David, who is very drunk and wants to go to bed. Then David tells him, "If I don't get another job right away, we'll have to leave this apartment." Julius begins to understand the situation, and says they can kick Bootie out and go back to his old place.

Marina has given her father the manuscript of her book, which is finished. But Murray doesn't want to read it. He's offended particularly by the dedication: "'For my parents, who taught me everything,' it said, and then, 'And for Ludovic, who taught me more.'" He is scornful of the lack of logic, but also upset because "in his heart of hearts, he knew he hadn't ever wanted to read it, had been perfectly content to imagine that it would never be finished." He can't admit this to anyone, "not even to young Frederick, whose rabidly exacting, almost demented standards amused him."

Bootie, in fact, wants Murray to read it -- "I think it would mean a lot to her." He tells him that Marina had come in to his office while Murray was at lunch and noticed that he hadn't even moved the manuscript. So "Murray had picked it up, snapped off the elastic, ruffled the pages, and stowed it in his bottom drawer." Danielle also wants him to read it, and suggests, "even if you have reservations, you'll have compliments, too; and then, I bet, without lying at all, you'll be able to, you know, accentuate the positive. She really does want your feedback, not just your praise." He says that he's flattered that Marina has followed in his footsteps and written a book. "But then again, my daughter has written a book about children's clothes. A book. About children's clothes." And he complains to her about the dedication. She asks if he's worried if Ludo has "somehow changed it." "The book or the girl?" he asks. "Both, really, I just wondered."

Finally, he reads it in a bar, taking two days. "He couldn't detach himself, couldn't entirely tell whether he would have thought badly of the book if he hadn't expected to think badly of it." He concentrates on what he sees as the triviality of the subject:
There were the depradations [sic] of rampant capitalism, the atrocities in Bosnia or Rwanda, the melting polar caps to attend to: and his daughter was busy investigating the cost of velvet-collared winter coats at Best and Company. 
At the same time, he is conscious of "his own hidden manuscript, a work that similarly, as he now saw it, walked the line between seriousness and popularity, more successfully, if he were fortunate, but confronting some of the same risks."

Danielle tells him, "Your opinion means everything to her.... Be careful." He replies, "If that were true ... then she wouldn't be marrying the fiancé. She wouldn't say he'd taught her more than everything." He meets her in a restaurant and tells her he's read it. "'There's some great stuff in there,' he said. 'You write beautifully.'" She knows there's a "but" coming and tells him so. When he's through, she says, "You're telling me that I shouldn't publish my book?" He suggests she rework it into a couple of magazine articles. And she repeats, "You're telling me not to publish my book." When he confirms that he thinks the topic trivial, she asks why he didn't say so before. "You've had seven years, Daddy. It's quite a long time." He has a variety of ways to answer this: that she had been twenty-three when she started what he saw as "a minor but not shameful undertaking" for a girl of that age, but not one of thirty; that he hadn't really expected her to finish it; and so on. He thinks she's crying, but she isn't.
"Ludo warned me you'd be hostile. All this time, he's said that you don't really want me to succeed with my writing, that you want me in your shadow. I told him that was ridiculous. It's just very interesting."
Reaching an impasse, they are silent for a while. "But this was what restaurants were for: the public repression of strong emotions." Finally, they are approached by a minor media type, a figure from talk radio, who "stopped by the table to glad-hand.... His obsequious bobbing and grinning served, in some measure, to dampen the tension: Marina couldn't help but smile at Murray after the man ... retreated."

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