The Writing

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

Tim: So last time we talked a lot about the characters, but I’ve got something else I want to discuss: the writing. I did not like the writing in most of this book so far. It’s not that it’s aggressively bad. It’s just aggressively pretentious. Ms. Messud loves her asides. Merrily we go along and then, WHAM! All the narrative momentum is derailed by three sentences of tangent. It strikes me as trying way too hard.

Debby: I know you’re trying to shift the topic away from the characters, but doesn’t the language underscore all the pretentious, insincere qualities we just affirmed in them? I think there is a clear purpose behind the language and grammar that the author uses. These are rather snooty young adults who are trying to be taken seriously in New York City. It’s interesting to note that the vocabulary is more dramatic and the writing structure increasingly chaotic when the characters reflect on themselves and their own actions. Their actual conversations are much more banal, for example the conversation Danielle and Marina have while dress shopping:

Marina: “Mom and Dad dragged him to the Beavors’ last night… You know, they’ve got that penthouse over the park I told you about. Awesome view. But everyone was so stiff. Poor Fred here looked like he was dying to escape.”

Fred: “No, no. I was– Maybe a little– It was— different.”

Danielle: “Hey, don’t I know it. I’m from Columbus, you know, not like Miss New York here, who couldn’t imagine life anywhere else–”

Marina: “Not fair!”

I found this exchange to be almost comical in how low brow it was. “You know” seems almost interchangeable with the pop-cultural overuse of the term “like”.

Tim: I think you’re right – that’s what the author is aiming for. And pretty much hits it. The trouble is that it works against itself. The act of making the writing banal, as you put it, for the sake of the characters nonetheless disinterested me as a reader. I think it’s an interesting attempt, so kudos to the writer for having a clear vision in mind and executing on it, I just think the vision, put to practice, was a little flawed.

Debby: Hmm… I do see your point, I just don’t feel quite as frustrated by it. I am certainly finding the characters less and less interesting. Their conversations don’t exactly “propel” the story along. Actually, at this point I’m not entirely sure what the storyline is. Do you have any thoughts on where this is all going?

Tim: Hahaha this is what I’ve been feeling from the get-go! I’m caught between expecting it to turn out rosy, for the characters to actually grow and change and adapt – and expecting them to just keep floundering. Which I guess is pretty true to life. I think there’s a large chance that we’re going to see people on the spectrum.

Debby: Ah! But that’s why I can empathize so easily with them! I am a very capable, sharp, personable young adult. I know that I could fully handle a career or a serious project if I was given the right opportunity. Yet until that day comes, I’m faced with a great number of minimum-wage jobs that make me feel insignificant.

Tim: Ok, sure. But I guess I don’t want to empathize with them. At the same time I’m probably often as cocky as these characters, I think I can figure it out on my own. Watching their malaise just doesn’t strike me as that interesting. Maybe I just want adventure. I will say, though, there is some definite narrative momentum building into the second half. It’s getting more interesting for me as we go, not less. Although barring getting through this list, I might not have got this far…

Debby: You can’t put a book down halfway through!! That’s practically criminal. We must press on!

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