When I first read of Messud’s answer to a stupid question (http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2013/05/likable_and_unlikable_characters_in_fiction_claire_messud_and_meg_wolitzer.html), I immediately went out to buy one of her books as a show of support. But when it finally rose to the top of my reading pile, I was chagrined. The New York Times had declared it “[a] masterly comedy of manners.” The notion of a 477-page ‘comedy of manners’ made me apprehensive, but still I dove in.
For a while, I was thrown off balance. Messud’s New York seemed similar to Tartt’s, to Wolitzer’s. A story about the wealthy and white. But her writing, despite her incredibly long, comma-filled sentences, was somehow different. There was and is no real plot. People move from one place to another. Love affairs begin, end. There’s even a detached feeling about a major event that happens near the end of the novel. (I’ve always tried to maintain my ‘no spoilers’ rule.)
But there’s also much more here than just a comedy of manners. Messud takes a while to get to it. Or maybe I did. But it stems from the title of the novel. In a book in which words matter so much – one main character is a famous writer, two others are starting a magazine, another is finishing a book – these three words are central. It is less about who is the emperor (though that’s an interesting question); it is more about what it means to be the emperor’s (and here we are talking about the one who is not wearing any clothes) children. When Messud peels back the onion of her world, we learn (and this resonated with me a great deal) that we are all (metaphorically and sometimes literally) not wearing any clothes. And in this world, our three main protagonists seem to have known it about everyone else when they were in their 20s, but now that they are approaching their 30s, they recognize it in themselves and each other. And the results are neither happy nor always wise. They make (and here comes that very adult word) compromises, both personal and professional. Idols fall and, in the end, only Bootie / Frederick / Ulrich stands alone.
So though there is much about high society here, there is also much that most of us – both individuals and institutions – can learn. All of us come naked into the world. Over time, we cover ourselves and compromise, and we lose track of what and who we once were. And perhaps Messud is suggesting here that it is only when we realize this (perhaps by having it pointed out to us) that we truly begin to, well, begin.