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Danielle Minkoff, The Emperor's Children

Claire Messud highlights the question of the identity and personality of Danielle Minkoff in the very first words of her 2006 novel, The Emperor’s Children: “Darlings! Welcome! And you must be Danielle?”  But who really is Danielle, and what must she be? Danielle Minkoff, one of the central characters of the book, is a 30-year old single producer of television documentaries. At the time of the opening scene, March 2001, she is in Sydney, Australia, researching a possible television program, and has just entered a party where she is greeted by the hostess who is holding a lit cigarette in such a manner that the “smoke wafted between them and brought tears to Danielle’s eyes.” The novel continues: “Danielle didn’t wipe them, for fear of disturbing her make-up. Having spent half an hour putting on her face ... ogling her imperfections ... she had no intention of revealing to strangers the disintegration beneath her paint.” (Chapter One, p. 1 of the 2007 Knopf edition; page numbers vary in the different printings, but all citations to the text will include the relevant chapter number as well.)


In the first two paragraphs of her novel, the author indicates that Danielle’s “make-up” will be important. In one sense, this might suggest that Danielle is superficial, concerned mainly with how her external appearance will be judged by others, “make-up” referring to the facial cosmetics Danielle has carefully applied to cover over her physical imperfections. In a larger sense, however, Danielle’s “make-up” is her basic character structure, how she is fundamentally “made up.” This includes her emotional and moral imperfections, strengths and reserves, her self-questioning, her external presentation to other people (not only what she reveals or does not reveal to strangers, but what she may or may not reveal to her closest friends), her own insights and what she reveals to herself, and her fears of “disintegration.” The seemingly empty, polite words of the hostess, “And you must be Danielle?,” take the form of a question, not a declarative sentence. Messud is preparing us for what Danielle must be or will become. The fact that Danielle does not wipe the tears from her eyes prefigures future occasions for tears.


Danielle is one of three Brown University graduates who constitute central characters in The Emperor’s Children. Danielle, Marina Thwaite and Julius Clarke had become close friends in college 10 years previously; now residing in New York City, their lives continue to be intertwined. At the start of the novel, they seem entitled, privileged and self-absorbed; although talented, they are disappointed in not having lived up to their initial promise and their hopes. Danielle, for example, desires to produce documentaries on significant issues such as reparations for African-Americans, and the relation between Aborigines and the Australian government, but her boss channels her instead into topics she considers superficial, such as liposuction.


Born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, Danielle considers herself a New Yorker, as emphasized in the opening pages. “There was, for Danielle Minkoff, only New York. Her work was there, her friends were there ... From her studio ... at Sixth Avenue and Twelfth Street, she surveyed lower Manhattan like a captain at the prow of her ship.” (Chapter One, p. 3). While surveying lower Manhattan and surveying people will be significant for Danielle, she is filled, however, with uncertainty and anxieties that call into question any self-identification as “captain of her ship.” In Chapter Twelve, “Danielle’s List,” she returns to her studio; the description of the studio begins with the “south-facing picture window ... [that] opened ... onto ... silhouetted buildings and their jumbled rooftops” (Chapter Twelve, p. 79). Looking at the furnishings of her apartment, Danielle associates various items with her identity: “Her self, then, was represented in her books; her times in her records; and the rest of the room she thought of as a pure, blank slate ... She did not display photographs or mementoes of any kind. ... On the walls, she had hung four Rothko reproductions ... She still felt - or could, if she kept the overhead light off and the posterish flatness of her pictures remained unrevealed, the way an aging woman’s wrinkles are melted in the shadows - that she might lose herself in the verdigris palette, a slightly different hue for each mood.” (Chapter Twelve, pp. 80-81). Note the “pure, blank slate,” the absence of mementoes, the reference to “an aging woman’s wrinkles,” and the “slightly different hue for each mood.”


This passage of self-identifications is immediately followed by Danielle’s anxieties, and her attempt to deal with them. “She felt the need to sort through her competing anxieties, to find a hierarchy and a rhythm for them, to make an internal list.” (Chapter Twelve, p. 81). Danielle enumerates five anxieties, devoting anywhere from one paragraph to more than two pages to an explication of each. The first anxiety is whether or not she will call her friend Marina, and whether or not she will call her mother. She then does call her mother, a prefiguring of calling her mother for help later in the novel. The second numbered item is an analysis of her feelings towards Marina. She finds herself irritated at the very idea of calling Marina, which she attributes here to her wish not to discuss her attraction to Ludovic Seeley, the Australian who will eventually become Marina’s husband. Number 3 on Danielle’s List is her awkwardness about her relationship with Marina’s father, Murray Thwaite, a journalist and celebrity with a reputation as a public intellectual, treated in some quarters with adulation. Murray has corresponded with Danielle via e-mail in the disguised hope of having a romantic relationship. Danielle has not yet begun such a relationship with him, but she does not wish to mention the e-mails to Marina, and experiences “some sort of titillating betrayal in their pithy messages.” (Chapter Twelve, p. 83). Danielle returns to her mother for the fourth item on the list. Although not given a separate number in her enumeration, anxieties about work now surface, as she fears she might show a “professionally deleterious lack of commitment” if she misses a scheduled meeting to go with her mother to a nail salon. Danielle decides that she must go with her mother; otherwise her mother would become emotional and cry, “which was hence to be avoided at all cost.” (Chapter Twelve, p. 85). The issue of tears as well as the emphasis on cosmetics link back to the first two paragraphs of the book. Item 5 on the list is Danielle’s annoyance with her friend Julius, who is ignoring her and Marina because of his relationship with a new boyfriend. “She couldn’t let on to anyone that she was annoyed.” (Chapter Twelve, p. 87).


After writing the list, Danielle prepares for bed, including “coating her skin in a costly cream ... Thus purified, bland as a lamb, Danielle lay naked between her fine sheets ... [but] she thought she could detect her worries darting like wisps in the corners of her blameless room.” (Chapter Twelve, p. 87). Danielle’s List reveal her anxieties directly (betrayal of and by friends, her relationship with her mother, her attempted suppression of envy and annoyance, hints of a sexual relationship with Murray Thwaite) and indirectly (lack of fulfillment at work, issue of cosmetics and how others would judge her external appearance, avoidance of tears), and her characteristic ways of dealing with her problems (sorting through her competing anxieties, placing them in a hierarchy, talking with her friends, calling her mother, wishing to become “bland as a lamb.”)


Danielle and Murray begin an affair, which Danielle does not mention even to her closest friends. Murray arranges to spend the night at her apartment only once, the night of September 10-11, 2001. The next morning, through the picture window highlighted previously, Murray sees a “colossal fire” and cries out. Danielle immediately “grabbed the remote” and turned on the television. Danielle and Murray spend the next hour and half watching in stereo, simultaneously mediated through the television screen and unmediated through the window looking out on the Twin Towers site. Murray decides to go home to his wife, despite her comment that he doesn’t have to go, causing Danielle to realize that he loves his wife and that their relationship is over. Contemplating the events she has witnessed, Danielle concludes that many of her superficial concerns do not matter, and that, in the words quoted by David Wyatt as the concluding phrase in his essay, “September 11 and Postmodern Memory,” (Arizona Quarterly, 65 (4), 2009, p. 161: “you had to make the right choice, you had to stay on the ground.” (Chapter Fifty-Eight, pp. 370 - 373).


Despite some critics who have said that the characters in this novel do not change after 9/11 (e.g., Ron Charles, “Vanity Fair,” The Washington Post, September 10, 2006), Danielle does change. Experiencing a serious depression and becoming reclusive, she leaves a message for Murray, who is trying to contact her: “please could you leave me alone.” (Chapter Sixty-Three, p. 412). Danielle contemplates suicide, but calls her mother for help, and begins to recover. Fundamentally, she becomes more compassionate, for the victims of the tragedy (see Amanda Kocis: http://lit9-11.umd.edu/danielle-identifies-herself-with-the-victims-of-9/11-the-emperors-children), and for her friends and acquaintances. In the concluding pages, she accidentally meets Bootie Tubb, Murray’s nephew, who has used the events of 9/11 to suggest that he has died, and then leaves for Florida to start a new life. Marina, Danielle and Murray have often seen Bootie as an object of ridicule and scorn. Now she thinks to herself , “somebody might love him, in time. Her, too, for that matter.” (Chapter Sixty-Six, p. 430). She reaches to take her mother’s hand, and although her mother’s fake rings dig into her palm, Danielle does not flinch from the pain. She has arrived at the conviction that she is lovable, that she will endure pain and discomfort if necessary (she could not withstand her mother’s crying in Chapter Twelve). Although one page earlier she had said, “I’m not sure I know who I think I am,” (Chapter Sixty-Six, p. 429), she realizes that change does not come about superficially (“Marina would tell us we just need a change of clothes” (ibid.). We are left with the intuition that Danielle will make the right choice, will stay on the ground, and will respond to the novel’s first question with integrity and compassion, replacing the empty question with an imperative for her self: “And you must be Danielle!”