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The problem with privilege

| Sunday, Sept. 24, 2006

The characters in Claire Messud's new novel, "The Emperor's Children," are not in the running for any humanitarian awards. Some of them are of a snobbish, privileged class, others are unremittingly self-absorbed. They are flawed but not without some redemptive qualities.

And, according to the author, they're probably more prevalent in society than heroes and saints.

"I'm trying to convey, in some way, at least what I feel life is like," says Messud from her home in Somerville, Mass. "Sometimes, to see people's innnermost thoughts, or secret motivations for things that are not always pure, or their limitations laid bare, or their selfishness, it's not attractive. But I actually think if you put anybody under the microscope, none of us would fare much better. It's true, they have a particular set of problems of being privileged and indulgent that is not attractive. I've been living with them all these years, so they feel like family, but most of them are not any worse people than all of us."

Nor are they dull, uninteresting or ever less than intriguing. "The Emperor's Children" takes place in the year 2001 -- yes, it does lead up to 9/11 -- with the three main characters the age of 30 and in flux. Danielle, a producer for a public television station, is learning that doing quality television shows is less important than producing ratings. Her best friend, Marina, the daughter of an illustrious writer, Murray Thwaite, is trying to finish a book about the sociology of children's fashion. Julius, the third member of the triumvirate, is a gay freelance writer and critic who is torn between the solidity of a new love and the thrills of his previously promiscuous lifestyle,

Messud, whose previous novels include PEN/Faulkner award nominee "The Hunter," always has received good reviews for her work. With "The Emperor's Children" -- which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize for literature -- she's getting sales commensurate with the praise.

"The last couple of weeks, my life just seems a little surreal, in a good way," says Messud of reviews that are comparing her style to Henry James, Edith Wharton and Iris Murdoch. "This is my fourth book ... and I've been incredibly fortunate in, all along the way, having people be incredibly supportive of me and my work. But I've never had very many readers. When you're writing, you hope that people will read what you write, and it's incredibly thrilling to think that reviewers are reading it and saying, 'you should read this.' "

Part of the appeal of Messud's work is how she shades the novel with literary and historical references. Tolstoy's "War and Peace," the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the exploits of Napoleon Bonaparte all are used as reference points in a novel that explores the desire for power and influence.

"It was always, for me, about ambition in a particularly worldly way," she says, "and the way different people handle their ambitions. A lot of the Emerson stuff, the Napoleon stuff, that was just floating around in my head in relation to those things."

Conflict comes by way of two interlopers. Bootie, Marina's cousin, is a young idealist who comes to New York and begins to work with Marina's father, a much-lauded writer who helps shape public opinion. Bootie is only 19 and worships his uncle for his idealism. Gradually he becomes disillusioned when he finds Murray is less than perfect, and he plots to reveal his uncle's failings.

Murray also comes under attack from Ludovic Seeley, an Australian who has come to the U.S. to launch a magazine designed to debunk sacred cows for the mere sake of debunking. A devotee of Napoleon, he is frank about his ambitions and also courts -- and wins over -- Marina, setting up another inter-family conflict.

The characters, with a few notable exceptions, are oblivious to the world around them. In one particularly chilling passage, Seeley becomes distraught when 9/11 interferes with the publication of his magazine.

This idea, that the personal takes precedence over the historical, is nothing new, Messud admits.

"In 'War and Peace,' history is being made with Napoleon, but except when the characters are on the battlefield, they're just living their lives," she says. "Life goes on in the midst of history, sometimes with a great consciousness of the history being made, and sometimes oddly oblivious to it."

Another point of emphasis in the novel is the value and worth of cultural icons. Murray Thwaite is regarded as one of the giants of his age. When Bootie and Ludovic call into question his worth, it becomes parallel to a situation Messud, 39, experienced during college: While some professors continued to teach Shakespeare and Flaubert, others began to discourse on the semiotics of Madonna videos.

"I feel in some broader sense that's seeped into our culture and a broader understanding of the world," she says. "I don't have a judgment on that, but I do have some confusion about that. Clearly, some of the effects are a little disturbing. If you take away the idea that it's better to be kind to people than to be powerful, if those become suddenly equal, or if it becomes better to be powerful, then what is not permitted• How are people going to behave toward each other?"

Additional Information:

'The Emperor's Children'

Author: Claire Messud

Publisher: Knopf, $25, 431 pages

Capsule review

'Great geniuses have the shortest biographies,' according to one of the characters in Claire Messud's striking novel 'The Emperor's Children.' Some of the best stories, on the other hand, are sprawling and large, and this is one of those books. Somewhat amazingly, there is little, if any, filler in Messud's about three New Yorkers -- all 30 -- trying to find their place in the world. Her dialogue is keenly shaped, her characters distinct, her pacing superb. And while it's a better read if one is familiar with 'War and Peace,' the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the history of Napoleon Bonaparte, Messud's story is sturdy enough to stand on its own.

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