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20081216-defending-the-emperors-children-by-santiago-ramosThe charge: a weak imagination, and uneven moral reasoning. The accused: Five American novelists, writing about characters living through the terrorist attacks of September 11. Cheryl Miller’s incisive essay in this month’s issue of Commentary, “9/11 and the Novelists,” is a great sign that said intellectual journal is not succumbing to the trendy temptation of becoming a predominately policy-oriented organ. But while I’m happy that Commentary is publishing literary essays I can’t say that I agree with everything in Miller’s piece.

I’ll let a more learned mind defend Don DeLillo against some very severe claims, but I do want to say a few words in defense of Claire Messud’s 9/11 novel, The Emperor’s Children (about which I wrote my first-ever Good Letters post, and recommended to Commonweal readers in this column).

About this novel, Miller writes:

Messud wants to show how, as Edith Wharton once wrote, a frivolous society “can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys.” But her sacrificial lambs, Danielle and Bootie, do not suffer very much, and in any case what happened on 9/11 was hardly an act of frivolity. Messud’s deployment of the attacks backfires. She has nothing of novelistic moment to say about them, but there they are on the page, raising a question to which she has no answer: what is the disillusionment of Danielle and Bootie next to the murder of thousands of people?

The logical problem in Miller’s argument is that, without sufficient warrant, she assumes her premise to be true: that what Wharton is describing is really what Messud was aiming for. It’s one thing for a critic to defend a certain critical approach and give reasons for it; it’s another to perform this sleight-of-hand wherein Messud does not live up to a standard she did not set for herself.

The point of The Emperor’s Children is not that frivolity destroys (though it does, on occasion), but that it is myopic. Presumably, one is against frivolity because it is an inadequate approach to living in the real world: life is serious, and actions have moral meaning. Nothing is more serious, and more meaningful, then a series of spectacular terrorist attacks that paralyze an entire city, and thrust an empire into war.

Messud doesn’t “deploy” the attacks; she writes about the witnesses. The falling towers are a fact, and they expose the incapacity of her frivolous characters to process, to deal with, this new, brutal fact. They see what is going on, but they can’t see a meaning to it, and they can barely mouth their questions, much less come up with answers. And so they retreat to frivolity and affluent fantasies.

Well, Miller might respond, that’s the point. Messud is raising questions that she cannot answer. Well…yes and no.

Messud does have something of “novelistic moment” to say: she says that the facts are bigger than the ways in which we think about the facts, and that we need to change. It may be that the novel is raising a question to which Messud “has no answer,” in the sense that Messud doesn’t allow any of her characters to make a speech wherein the answer is explicated. The most Messud will give us is the hope that in the life of one of her characters, the answers will be found. After the terrorist attacks, all of Messud’s characters, highly disturbed, nevertheless return to old patterns of thinking—with the exception of Bootie, a character whose peculiarity Miller fails to perceive.

Messud’s answer is the life of Bootie himself, which was transformed by the attacks, but also by the radical risk that Bootie makes in the wake of the event. Before the attacks, Bootie is the only character who sees past the superficiality of his surroundings, and uncovers and exposes the ignorance of the famous journalist Murray Thwaite, the “Emperor” of the novel. He uses the events of 9/11 to fake his death and make a new identity and a new life for himself, looking for happiness and truth elsewhere. Before the fact of the attacks, only he has the ability to process his experience, and to make a decision.

The decision is radical, and it’s not easy to understand or to accept. Messud is making a big play here; I find it fascinating.

(An interesting observation is that, echoing the Gospel, the first, and as far as the reader knows, only person to see Bootie after his transformation is a woman, Danielle, whose post-9/11 nervous breakdown would have made her an untrustworthy witness—to her frivolous friends.)

Cheryl Miller is too quick to dismiss The Emperor’s Children. The answer that Messud offers the reader isn’t a new moral understanding, but a new type of person.


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Santiago Ramos

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