{The Emporer’s Children by Claire Messud}
{Reading Status: three-quarters of the way through the novel}

Debby: Okay, this is going to be a little messy. Because the topic I want to discuss is generally very muddled: love. Messud has allowed us to watch relationships bloom from their very inception. We have been able to glimpse the past, as Bootie reflects on the relationships between his aunt and uncle, as Danielle provides access to her relationship with her mother. And, of course, there are the three distinct romantic relationships that involve the main characters.

Tim: Four. Let us not forget the couple that’s actually married.

Debby: Ah. Yes. Good call. But in any affect, we’ve had the “stage set”, so to speak, for a long time it seems. And we know our actors, and their interests. But now love comes into the picture. I just find it fascinating to watch how these characters attempt to hold on to this idea and incorporate it into the facades they’ve created for themselves.

Tim: Those facades though – in a lot of ways the facade is themselves – himself or herself. There’s a point in which the narrator, from Danielle’s perspective, talks about all the changes Danielle has made to her apartment since she’s started seeing Murray, how it’s always cleaner, different, not exactly hers anymore. “Her apartment now struck her as the stage set for a play, a site awaiting action. As if it weren’t quite real on its own any longer.” But it is still hers, and ultimately she won’t be able to escape that it is hers. At some point she’s got to cop to that, right? Whether “love” is the right word for her feelings for Murray or not at the moment, that relationship has changed, in some aspect, who she is.

Debby: I think you’re missing the point, though. Messud gives us these very detailed descriptions of rooms and then allows important action to take place in them. In the case of Danielle’s apartment, the Rothkos are suddenly possessed by the reality of Murray. There is a sense of space being embodied, which is in sharp contrast to the relationships themselves.

Tim: Oh, I think that’s definitely what Messud is setting up, I just think it’s ultimately to flip the script on the characters. I think that they’re a lot more real and mutable than the symbolic, stagnant things that surround them, and I think that’s going to become a major thrust of the novel.

Debby: Okay, I like that. I think Annabel and Marina’s conversation about marriage speaks to your point. Marina tells her mother, with regard to Ludo, “He believes in me”. To which Annabel responds, “You mustn’t idealize, that’s all. That’s all I wanted to say. You’ll marry a man, not an idea of one.” (Ch 33)

Tim: Yeah, absolutely. Great quote. We do that, don’t we? Build conceptual realities, have ideas about people, go off those ideas. On a very real level, there’s not much we can do other than that. But I don’t think that’s what Annabel means. She’s warning Marina about fixating. The irony is that these characters is that they always seem to be trying to get “there,” wherever “there” is. It’ll all be ok when they get “there.” The trick is that we aren’t stagnant, we don’t get there and stop. Ok, this is going to sound super trite, but we are the journey, aren’t we? We are the struggle, and relationships are the struggle together. Oh, man, I just got reminded of a West Wing quote (which happens a lot. Spoilers) There’s this scene in the last season where Danny is talking to CJ and he says, “If I’m going to jump off the cliff, and you’re going to get pushed off the cliff, why don’t we hold hands on the way down?” Sorry, only kind of related. I like The West Wing.

Debby: We kind of talked about this before… the “getting there” bit. Marina’s story seems to actually be progressing, she has a fiance, a job, a finished book.

Tim: Which is all kind of funny because we’ve also talked about how she seemed to be the most directionless character in the story.

Debby: Right, and it’s ironic that Ludo actually says that Danielle is jealous of Marina because “She’s your best friend, accustomed to having unlimited access and, let’s face it, in some ways accustomed to having a life more fully organized than yours- the apparently successful job, the apartment” (Ch 41). So Ludo agrees with us that there needs to be a qualifier to Danielle’s “apparently successful” life.

Tim: Yes, and as long as you’re ok with pivoting here, that wigs me out a little bit. Because Ludo is skeevy. And at the same time he’s often the one it’s most easy to agree with. Yeesh.

Debby: He’s easy to agree with, because nobody else has anything meaningful to contribute! Ludo likes to turn situations on their head, typically just to be difficult. He doesn’t really believe in anything himself (as Danielle eventually discovered), he simply thinks: “Mutability is my hallmark. It’s healthy. It’s vital” (Ch 37). And it certainly is vital in a dramatic rendition of life in NYC.

Tim: So let me ask you this: where does that commited mutability leave his relationship with Marina? Because I think we both believe he’s looking for something a lot more specific than a little intrigue-for-fun out of it.

Debby: Well let me say this: I certainly don’t believe he is in love. Well, at least not with Marina. Quite possibly his Napolean complex only allows for him to love himself and keep his own best interests at heart.

Tim: What are his own best interests though? Is he, to borrow Alfred’s words in The Dark Kight, just out to “watch the world burn?” Though we don’t know a lot about Ludo, that doesn’t quite seem to fit him. He is, at least in word, averring some commitment to Marina, and he’s backed it up with enough action that (for the moment) she believes him.

Debby: Clearly, Marina is willing to believe anything. She honestly thinks she is “like” her father and knows him better than anyone else. Ludo practically laughs at this completely ridiculous statement. Marina desperately wants to be adored. Her father adores the attention she brings him, and I think Ludo might be after the same.

Tim: Well, at least in that respect, it would seem Marina is exactly like her father. They both crave adoration. The difference comes in that Murray seems to have a better work ethic. Maybe even an overactive one given his extramarital escapades.

Debby: And thus we get into the heady topic of family legacy. Ludo makes a great comment about this as well: “As parents, we visit our complexes, whatever they may be, upon our children– our neuroses, our hopes and fears, our discontents. Just the way our broader society is like a parent, and visits its complexes upon the citizenry, if you will” (Ch 29). Oh man, this is good. The “heritage” aspect, the traits that the parents pass on to their children, is absolutely clear in this book (Bootie’s mom disdain for her brother and desire to keep Bootie at home create an inverse drive in Bootie; Marina seeks adoration like her father, but also was never pushed to succeed, etc.). But even more so, we see society making it’s imprint on this younger generation. I think Bootie and Ludo are the only ones who are able to see it clearly (while at the same time responding to it’s influence). It is part of Bootie’s “awakening,” when he realises how disillusioned he was by the “life of the mind.” It’s why he had trouble reading “Infinite Jest” or keeping track of the conversation at Marina’s house gathering (Ch 38). There is a falseness to the demands of society, so its citizens have to become paper dolls themselves.

Tim: Ok. I think I can go with you there. So I think the obvious question becomes how this affects the two bi-generational romances. If Danielle is being chased by the flaws of her parents, why is it that it’s Murray she turns to? Maybe that’s just it, though. Danielle’s mom is borderline neurotic, loud in dress and talk, and pushy. Murray may be no less prone to slinging his opinion around, but he goes about it in a completely different way. Still, I wonder why Danielle finds that so attractive, or if that is part of the appeal at all.

Debby: Yeah, you’re definitely not a female. He is an attractive, impressive older man, who seems to have it all together. Danielle is desperately trying to keep up her own successful facade. Murray gives her the affirmation she’s been seeking. He thinks that she is wise and articulate, pretty even. The games they were playing (“does this mean what I think it means?”) only confirmed in her that she was someone worthy of playing with.

Tim: Yeah, I can see that part of it. But I go back to the cultural/generational idea, and I wonder what part of that factors into Danielle’s relationship with Murray. Is it really as simple as opposites attracting? This book, this author, doesn’t seem like it would be content with something so simple. Maybe we’ll see as we get a little further.

Debby: I would not call it opposites attracting at all! I think they’re both desperately needy individuals who are looking for someone or something to fill that gaping emptiness inside of themselves. Danielle doesn’t feel she has any worth to society; Murray is trying to embody this “monumental man” that he’s created. They both lend each other substance and credibility – but it is extremely tenuous relationship.

Tim: That’s absolutely sure, and I’m very interested to see where it goes.

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