Claire Messud’s new novel, her third, is, sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph, a singing, Jamesian beauty. She does it all and does it like a virtuoso: she conjures the heavy particularity of places (Manhattan, Miami, small-town upstate New York, expensive apartments, sleazy dives, gay bars, offices, stairwells, coffee shops, sweaty sheets, freshly ironed shirts) with their smells and sounds and tastes and textures; she renders and dissects the inner monologue of doubt and anguish and love and hope and fear that hums and buzzes agonizingly inside each of us; and she pins like a butterfly the social and emotional world of privileged, rich New Yorkers with intellectual pretensions. Magical, absorbing, riveting: all the usual hyperbole of reviewer-speak is appropriate. Once you’ve started it you won’t want to put it down.
So, yes, the beauty of polished and penetrating prose is there. And not only is Messud skillful at that (rare enough), she’s also smart, well read, abundantly capable of threading a well-turned metaphor cluster through her text to hold it together as an idea as well as a thing of beauty. The idea is sartorial (Carlyle’s spiky Sartor Resartus lurks somewhere in the deep background, and this is only one of dozens of literary echoes, some explicit and some deeply buried), which is to say that it’s about clothes and nakedness: dressing, undressing, redressing; naturalness and exposure; concealment and artifice. The novel’s title is a shortened form of a book one of its heroines is writing: The Emperor’s Children Have No Clothes. That book is one of several. Almost everyone in this novel writes or wants to write, or gives writing tasks to others. The characters clothe themselves with the written word, and attempt to unclothe each other in the same way. The book-within-the-book is a high-gloss history of children’s clothing that pokes beneath what we dress our children in to show what we mean by it, and in doing so, plays with the old story about the child who was clear-sighted enough to see and say that the emperor is really naked even though all the adults are happy to admire the new suit of clothes he doesn’t have on. And so this novel too is devoted to unclothing its characters, to showing that beneath the carefully chosen outfits, the décor, the lifestyle, the words, the representations, there’s really only nakedness desperate to be clothed.
Clever. Elegant, even-if perhaps a tad sophomoric. But there’s a problem that undercuts the singing prose and the clever ideas: in its heart this novel is soft, a high-test and high-concept emotional pander, encouraging its readers to buy cheap comfort from voyeurism, which is what all romances do. But to explain why requires a bit of plot summary.
The book’s action, most of which takes place in Manhattan, occurs between March and November 2001. Its central characters are three thirty-ish college friends who’ve lived in Manhattan since they graduated from Brown a decade earlier. They’re trying to make a career and a name. One, Danielle, is a producer of documentary television shows. A second, Marina, has been working for seven years on the book mentioned. And a third, Julius, makes a precarious living writing reviews for the Village Voice and other journals with more prestige than money. There’s also a mysterious Australian, Ludovic, who’s come to New York to start a journal of radical cultural criticism that, he says, will be truly revolutionary. There are others who circle around these four: Marina’s father, Murray, a wealthy and famous journalist and commentator on current events; Julius’s lover, David; Frederick, Murray’s nephew, a twenty-ish college dropout who comes to work for Murray, a Caliban to Murray’s Prospero; and so on.
The novel’s plot is the lives, loves, and artifices of these people, almost all of it in the womb of Manhattan. They fall in love, variously and complicatedly; they betray one another; they eat and drink in expensive cafés and bars; they marry; they commit adultery; they seek the meaning of life (Murray is writing a book about this called How to Live, and Frederick is writing an article trashing both this book and Murray’s oeuvre as a whole); and, above and behind and under everything else they talk and write obsessively. Messud does not shrink from giving us frequent long interior monologues in an artful mix of omniscient-author exposition and almost-first-person-reported thought-much harder to do convincingly than she makes it seem-so that we can gauge the degree of anguished self-pity and insecurity to which her characters are subject.
And then, five-sixths of the way through the novel, comes 9/11. Danielle’s apartment is within visual range, and so we get a report, done with economy and power. The suicide airplanes undo not only the World Trade Center and much of Lower Manhattan, they also undo-unclothe-the characters in this novel. An adultery ceases; a marriage begins to dissolve; a death is faked and a new life begun; there’s a funeral; a suicide is contemplated; a mother is retreated to for comfort; and Julius says to Marina in (inevitably) Starbucks, “We’ve always been fucking lucky, and have just kept right on,” thus contrasting themselves with the dead. They’re sobered; they’ve grown; and they will go right on, scarred of course (Julius has been physically scarred during an altercation with a lover), just as Manhattan is now scarred by the absence of the Twin Towers.
But really. This hovers a millimeter (and perhaps not even that) away from soap opera, from the easy emotional satisfaction of having gotten to know some people, seen them through some bad times, and knowing now that even if they won’t be perfect, they’ll at least be better, they’ll have at least learned something. Just as, God help us, New York City and the nation will be better, sobered, and scarred, soldiering on. Unclothed but now redressed. And so we, Messud’s readers, can readjust our emotional dress, tidy ourselves up, and go on, just that bit better as persons for having read her book. This is the book’s false comfort. It’s not only that none of the characters see 9/11 as anything other than a glass through which their own insecurities may be refracted and perhaps transformed. It’s that the author wants the reader to do the same, to use quotidian violence and mass death (and if you don’t think these things are quotidian you should get out more) and the responses of her characters to it as balm for the soul and stimulus for the imagination. This isn’t catharsis; it’s more like bathos.
Messud has enormous writerly skills, and even the soft heart and barely disguised soap-opera sentiment of this book do not obscure them. If you want to be moved and comforted and dazzled by the powers of language, this book is for you. But if you want to be discomfited by being shown human life clothed only in the essentials, stripped to the bone, it isn’t here. The problem is that Messud isn’t serious enough: she appears to endorse the self-deceptive triviality of emotional comfort and the delusive appeal of the imagination, when all we have, in the end, is lament in the face of a fallen and damaged world.
Toward the book’s end, Danielle considers suicide as a response to a failed love affair and the horrors of 9/11. She draws back. But I found myself wishing she hadn’t, not because suicide is ever a good idea, but because this is a book that would have been immeasurably better had it contained a hint that there are depths of human misery to which the imagination can provide no response and the emotions no comfort, and Danielle’s suicide would have been such a hint. Fiction can show with great power the blank inaccessibility of human life in extremis (and it always is) to emotional and imaginative meaning-making: Sophocles did it, Hardy did it, James, in his own way (clearly one of Messud’s teachers), did it. But perhaps in order to lay that inaccessibility bare a religious impulse is necessary. There’s no sign of that in Messud. There is, instead, a world of glittering surfaces, deep emotions, and endless imaginative reach for what cannot be grasped.