Restless

{Book #1: The Emporer’s Children by Claire Messud}
{Reading Status: halfway through the novel}

Debby: While I was reading today, I was reminded of a particular passage in St. Augustine’s Confessions:

“Man, a little piece of your creation, desires to praise you, a human being ‘bearing his mortality with him’, carrying with him the witness of his sin and the witness that you ‘resist the proud’. Nevertheless, to praise you is the desire of man… You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” (Confessions, Book 1, emphasis added).

If there is one theme that stands out in Claire Messud’s perceptive novel, it is restlessness. Each character is plagued by a particular demon that makes them feel inadequate, insufficient, powerless. There is a constant motion to the book, in which each individual takes part. No one is at peace with their relationships, with their work, or with themselves. In his Confessions, Augustine renounces his “secular ambitions” in order to find rest by means of faith in God. While “The Emperor’s Children” is almost completely devoid of religious discourse, the secular nature of their aims is rather distinctive.

Tim: So going back to the “restlessness,” I think it’s interesting that you keyed on this, because while I think you’re right, I also thought the beginning of the book was incredibly stagnant. It’s all about setting up the characters, which I guess is fine, but they don’t really do a whole lot.

Debby: The first chapter made me skeptical. The Australian dinner party felt like a paltry revisiting of Joyce’s “The Dead”. But then the scene shifted to New York, and suddenly there was life. These dramatic individuals, the main ones middling around their thirties, were moving through space and time with the abstract problems that our generation seems to undeniably face.

Tim: But that’s just it, wasn’t it? It was all so abstract. I don’t know if I agree that these are “dramatic individuals.” They have a lot of aspirations, but again, they don’t do much, do they?

Debby: Well, there you get back to the whole concept of “restlessness”. Essentially, they are all constantly moving. Quite literally, really. Danielle moves from Australia back to New York. Marina moves from one of her parent’s homes to another. Julius travels with David. There is action without actual progress. There is no sense of accomplishment or fulfilment in these moves, which frustrates the characters (and apparently, you).

Tim: Yes, I think that’s probably pretty accurate. Most of the first half of this book felt very empty to me. In the moment, there seemed to be significance, but when we pulled back it never seemed we got anywhere. I think we’re coming to roughly the same point here and just had very different reactions to it.

Debby: But I didn’t find it unsatisfying in the least. I found myself empathizing with Julius’ undirected ambition and in Bootie’s disgust for the farce that is “education”. Marina’s plight, the lack of certainty she feels towards anything, resonates loudly in my own head. And Danielle, the one person who has a job and a keen sense of self-reliance, I connect with the most. She is the most lost among them, because she has the tangible reality, but also sees how pointless and unfulfilling it is. And that’s what Messud really gives the reader: she shows the hollowness that our society is suffering from and makes you resonate with the restless nature of her characters.

Tim: I’ll grant you that. There’s certainly plenty of angst to go around.

Debby: Angst? That’s not what I’m getting at all. I think that was a previous generation’s way of dealing with insecurity. I think this era’s problem is more subtle. We have been told by previous generation’s that we are supposed to succeed and they we can do anything we want as long as our heart is in it. Our parents have grafted into us ambitions that are not financial (as the post-depression era children were dealt), but rather a need to fulfill our own “dreams” and not debase ourselves with trifles like minimum-wage jobs.

Tim: And we’re seeing that illusion be shattered. Well, broken slowly. I think I’m with you there. It causes a ton of internal emotional turmoil for these characters that’s only partially foisted off on to some aspect of their social selves. They’re not sure how to cope with unfulfillment, because (especially for the characters we see in this book) they’ve been successful all their lives by the measurements they’ve been presented with. I can’t imagine any of these characters struggling in grade school.

Debby: Very true. That line is very interesting, though. College and even post-graduate have seemed to prolong this state in our society longer than ever. Thus these 30-year-olds are dealing with issues that Sal Paradise and Holden Caulfield dealt with in their late teens.

Tim: See, my mind actually went somewhere else as a point of comparison. I’ve found this book (so far) to be eerily reminiscent of East of Eden. The brothers in Steinbeck’s novel seem to be dealing with a lot of the same kind of existential issues that all the characters here are, if not exactly in the same ways. But Caulfield and Catcher in the Rye, I can see that as well.

Debby: Tada! And thus we see why this book is the first on the list of the “65 Books You Need to Read in Your 20s”.

Tim: So we all don’t become douchy drags on society.

Debby: And what a nice segway to introduce the concept for this blog! Tim and I tend to have rather heated debates about popular culture topics, most especially books. Tim had the brilliant idea to go through this list.

Tim: So at least for the foreseeable future that’s what we’ll be doing.

Debby: We’d love for you to read these books along with us and join our discussion!

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