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What Messud's Satire Achieves, The Emperor's Children

“Only on Monday night, they’d still been planning, and it had all been in their heads, then, and not yet unleashed upon the world. It was an awesome, a fearful thought: you could make something inside your head, as huge and devastating as this, and spill it out into reality, make it really happen. You could—for evil, but if for evil, then why not for good, too?—change the world.” (Messud 439)

Claire Messud’s novel, The Emperor’s Children, does not—at first glance—seem to do much of anything in one direction or another. The audience struggles to locate the satire and its target amongst the flippant actions of the vaguely redeemable characters—characters that the audience does not care enough about to satirize or pity. However, Messud, in the above passage, does something that many writers, especially those under the post-modern umbrella, fail to accomplish; she builds something.

In the 21st century, satire has become conflated with irony. Irony, of course, takes no prisoners in its attempts to undercut the solid, the sincere, the virtuous and change them into the so-called solid, the so-called sincere, and the so-called virtuous. In actuality, a satire’s purpose—above all else—is to critique, but to critique is not necessarily to destroy. Messud has pegged a great problem with, not only 9/11 literature, but with contemporary thought and, therefore, according to the quote, action. Her main critique of her characters, and one could venture to say, with modernity, is simple and dismissible in the shadow of irony, but ultimately powerful and necessary: the human mind contains infinite potential to change the tangible world we live in. As Bootie muses in the quote above, “you could…change the world.” If this idea were to take hold in the minds of policy-makers or pre-mediators, the world might be a very different place.

This call to action is multifaceted. It implicates the characters—writers, academics, fathers, friends, etc—as well as the social constructs that allow certain populations to ignore their potential, and therefore responsibility, to change the world—wealth, Ivy League educations, and vocational success. A reader could conclude, as I have above, that these critiques can be expanded to apply to US political actions, both nationally and internationally. This passage reveals The Emperor’s Children’s overarching critique. It is a turn from irony to production—a quality claimed about the state of post-9/11 literature and life. However, this claim, for as large as it is and as confidently as it is proclaimed, has been supported by few authorial actions besides Messud’s novel.

The chosen passage takes place within Chapter Sixty-Two, “Clarion Call.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a clarion call is defined as “A strongly expressed demand or request for action” (Oxford). The focalizer of this chapter is Bootie, and the passage comes right before he chooses to ‘go underground,’ in a sense, and travel to Miami. In choosing to name each chapter, Messud gives each section a significant gloss. As with Bootie’s epiphany that enacted thoughts can change the world, Messud illustrates the fact that writing—a world-changing product of the human mind transmitted into the physical world—functions in a similar way, so when an author who writes about writers names a chapter, this becomes doubly significant. It is important to note that, because the title of the chapter is in agreement with Bootie’s statement, that it adds a layer of sincerity to the passage. If the passage undercut the title or the title undercut the following passage, the chapter would become ironic because the one would negate the expectations built by the other. Bootie would, once again, be the butt (for lack of a better word) of the joke. The title seems to indicate that Messud takes the passage seriously, and uses it as a point of clarity for readers who may be confused about what she is critiquing with her self-proclaimed satire. The choice to have Bootie as the focalizer of the chapter was another risky decision that, because the scene was done so well, paid off in dividends.

Bootie is the chubby (as he is so often reminded) outsider, the self-educator, and the earnest rebel. With his penchant for baths and his move from a fractured self to a new, whole-seeming alter ego, Bootie is another, less obvious thing—a child. Essentially, in making Bootie her instrument, Messud’s message comes ‘out of the mouths of babes,’ which is quite fitting, considering the title of the novel. The fact that she has him ‘tell the truth’ about other characters or situations at several points in the novel builds up to the moment at which he ‘tells the truth’ about the crux of the novel. In leading up to Bootie’s epiphany, Messud also makes a subtle critique of what affects the contemporary mind.

A television clip sparks this quote, arguably the most important part of the novel. Bootie does not come to this conclusion by reading Emerson or by having a transcendentalist ‘experience’ of solitary musings in nature—if one considers Central Park to truly be the ‘nature’ that Emerson and Thoreau had in mind. He is able to bring the reader to the novel’s heart because he sees a clip of Mohammed Atta at an ATM. While, at first, it is somewhat disappointing that the impetus of the epiphany comes from a glowing, brain-melting enemy of the contemporary Luddite, it is actually the most fitting apparatus Messud could employ. The majority of Americans, including some in New York City, witnessed and experienced 9/11 through their TV screens, so it is only fitting that Messud would filter her critique, her clarion call, as it were, through the same lens. It is interesting to parse the relationship that Messud sets up between the mind, action, change, television, and writing. She critiques those that use the above things for flippant or ineffectual ends and demands something more in the name of good, because it is so clear—in this case—that the relationship between mind and action has been blatantly employed, as Bootie says, for evil.

As previously mentioned, this statement, “you could make something inside your head, as huge and devastating as this, and spill it out into reality, make it really happen” refers to all actions, including the act of writing. This idea becomes clearer when one remembers the fact that this book is populated almost entirely by writers. These writers also happen to be plugged into genres of writing that can hold a great deal of direct social influence—if they so choose to accept and bear that responsibility. For example Murray Thwaite writes widely read journalistic pieces that criticize social structures, political actions, etc, and his daughter Marina writes a book that would appeal to those socially minded members of academia. Of course, both father and daughter create increasingly impotent works. Murray rests on his laurels, and Marina almost fails to finish her book completely. Additionally, Messud includes the Australian fiction writer who is unknown in the US, and is not very talented, but very popular. His clownishness and success tempt the reader to apply those qualities to Murray. Since we see him and the post-modern critic Seeley before the other writers, the reader comes to expect very little tangible good change to come from their writings. Here, in the cited passage above, Messud finally calls to task the writers she is so very disappointed with. The effectiveness of this sentiment is highlighted by the fact that the person she has calling out those writers is the outsider they want to get rid of—sincere, determined Bootie. She gives her audience bad examples, and demands better ones, real ones. In demanding positive change of her writers—agents of hero- and myth-making—Messud also could be seen as demanding positive change from the other ‘writers’—those political, cultural, and social agents of history.

It is at this point that Messud’s satire becomes most successful—she not only manages to satirize her characters, the act and duty of writers, and the fact that most do not truly want to hear the truth ‘out of the mouths of babes’ or anyone else for that that matter; Messud also manages to craft a critique that reaches beyond the realm of fiction, beyond “your head,” and ‘spills’ out into the realm of the audience, the ‘real’ world. As previously alluded to, this ‘discovery’ of the fact that something could come out of one’s head and enact good as well as evil, could also be seen a critique of the United States’ reaction to the 9/11 attack. Instead of simply reacting against 9/11—or attempting to negate the wrong against the United States by subjecting other states or people to equal ‘wrongs’—9/11 could have been the catalyst that illustrated the desperate need to promote positive change now. This gives people all the more reason to pay close attention to Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, in spite of its initial difficulties or potential shortcomings.

Works Cited

"clarion". Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University Press, n.d. Web. 31     March 2014. <http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/clarion>.

Messud, Claire. The Emperor's Children. New York: Vintage, 2007.