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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Claire Messud's "The Emperor's Children," and the Question of Literary Fiction

"The Emperor's Children" is indeed a fine novel. I read a review online yesterday that accused Messud of over-writing, long-windedness and a pretentious style. I believe I had the same impression when I first read "The Last Life." I remember thinking that I could have written the book (how pretentious of me) in less than 250 pages and still say the same thing. But what was at fault with that assessment was the fact that it was my first Claire Messud novel, and I didn't really know her and her style and her wonderful and beautiful art. "The Emperor's Children" cleared up the issue quite satisfactorily for me. Messud is probably one of the finest writers alive today and, like Paul Auster, she "plays second fiddle" to people like Picoult, Rice, King, Grisham and others who fall under the blessing of a certain talk show hostess. It's a shame, really, but it seems that there's nothing to do when it comes to literary fiction (read the over-simplified definition from wikipedia HERE).

The novel rounds up very well, as the complications between characters become more and more dense. Of course the break-up between Julius and Cohen (the gay couple) is foreshadowed enough for the reader to see it coming. Now, the complications between Danielle and Murray was artfully written, full of tension and an awesome depiction of the human folly. Murray lies to his wife and says he will be in Chicago for the weekend in order to spend the weekend at Danielle's apartment. Of course, he is staying not too far away from his own home. But the problem really comes when a couple of planes hit the Twin Towers and create havoc beyond all ideologies, countries and civilizations. Murray has to come up with a plan to go back to his wife that very day. How to make her think he was able to come back to New York when all the airports were closed? Really, the book becomes an excellent picture of the confusion and human condition of that day. Bootie, Murray's nephew, writes an article criticizing his uncle and it sets off another avalanche of fireworks... characters were so "fleshed-out" and their trials so alive... Messud is really a great writer.

I didn't mean that the authors I mentioned in the paragraph above go without merit. I think that there's enough readership to go around. My concern is with that "vague" genre called literary fiction. How is this defined? Who makes the decision to label it such? More importantly, why is it such a turn off for people who might read a "beach book" voraciously but shun literary fiction after the first few pages? Literary fiction might deal with the so-called human folly, with the full condition of humanity, emotional turmoils, etc. I can certainly understand people have different taste, but to lump literary fiction as "pretentious" is simply a hasty generalization and slippery-slopish. B.R. Myers claims just that in "A Reader's Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literature." The problem with his argument is not that it isn't true--some level of what he claims as pretentiousness must be taking place in academia and writing programs (although a writers' styles do not constitute pretentiousness. Perhaps overwriting, but not pretentiousness). He sweeps and over-encompasses contemporary American authors lumping them together, portraying them as intellectual clowns and posers and insists that the state of literary fiction is (with reference to Messud's title) a case of the emperor having no clothes. An entire chapter is dedicated to Paul Auster. Of course, my bias is immediate and collective: I love Paul Auster's work. I love it because it is deep, meaningful, insightful... in a word: perfect. Getting that out of the way is a good way to "problematize" Myers' argument further. Why is it that enlarging the message of a particular plot, story, or character to uncover what is "underneath" the words becomes pretentiousness? I am not quite sure about Myers' process of categorizing literary fiction, especially American literature, but one could say the same thing about all the literary fiction coming out of Europe and Asia. Certainly, they have the other types: chick lit, techno and legal thrillers, etc. Moreover, literary fiction also comes from thousands of places, written in other languages other than English... should we categorize all of that pretentious as well? One could say the same about the work of Haruki Murakami, or V.S. Naipaul, or Salman Rushdie. Perhaps Myers already has a second book in the works regarding false European erudition... oh God, did I really say that?

I am off to read "The Religion of the Samurai" next. I am excited to be finishing up the semester with so much ease, as I think the work from last semester is paying off now. Presently, the students graduating in June are taking their final exams... it seems like yesterday we started the year. Cheers!

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