All that glitters

<strong>The Emperor's Children</strong>

Claire Messud <em>Picador, 431pp, £14.99</em>

ISBN 03304

While many novelists permit readers a deeper awareness of their characters' predicaments than the characters possess themselves, Claire Messud pushes this prescience to the limit in her fine new novel. Set in the six months leading up to September 2001, The Emperor's Children skilfully depicts a large cast of entitled, self-absorbed New Yorkers as they conduct breathless romances, extramarital affairs, literary squabbles and career schemes - never suspecting that 19 young fanatics are preparing to turn much of what they do to both figurative and literal dust.

The emperor of the title is Murray Thwaite, a 61-year-old journalist who is famous among the chattering classes for his hard-hitting books on everything from Bosnia to "late capitalism". As the story opens, in March 2001, Thwaite is under siege on several fronts. First, a slick, soulless Australian editor named Ludovic Seeley has just arrived in New York to start a cultural magazine called the Monitor, whose primary purpose is to skewer establishment figures such as Thwaite. "What could be rarer, more precious, more compelling than unmasking these hacks for what they are," Seeley asks, "than an instrument to trumpet that the emperor has no clothes, and the grand vizier has no clothes, and the empress is starkers, too?" A different sort of menace comes in the form of Thwaite's 19-year-old nephew Frederick (unfortunately nicknamed "Bootie"), a college dropout who arrives in Manhattan to work as Thwaite's ama nuensis, bringing with him the sort of po-faced hero-worship that can only lead to trouble.

And then there is the emperor's actual child, 30-year-old Marina, an insecure beauty who emerges from her father's long and vaguely incestuous shadow only when she takes up with the vulpine Seeley, who encourages her to finish her slim book about the importance of children's dress, The Emperor's Children Have No Clothes. Marina's two college friends round out the cast - Danielle, a documentary producer who enters into a supremely ill-advised affair with Murray, and Julius, a gay, impoverished critic who cannot "figure out where desire (other people's) turned to riches (for him)".

The ensuing narrative is two-tiered. On its surface, The Emperor's Children is a shrewd, trenchant satire on the New York arts scene, particularly its large cast of wannabes and might-have-beens. For them, there is no such thing as selling out, just selling up. Danielle calls herself a producer but cannot get anything off the ground, whether it be a film about African-American reparations or a study of the wave of nihilism sweeping the city's journalism in the post- dotcom era, "the particular purging cynicism of the boom on the cusp of its bust". It is only when she moots a study of liposuction gone bad that she gets a green light from the network. Marina's deliriously insipid study of child fashions looks like a sure-fire bestseller, while Julius's career gains traction only when he is commissioned to do a piece on the city's evolving gay club scene. Even Murray, who occupies a pedestal in the modern pantheon alongside Mailer and Sontag, harbours a secret pet project that reads more like a self-help manual than Armies of the Night. Only fat, inconsequential Bootie seems to believe that integrity is still integral to cultural achievement.

Beneath this stringent, beautifully written satire lies a more serious narrative - a portrait of a group of gilded, frivolous people about to be singed by a true bonfire of the vanities. Unlike Jay McInerney in his far less effective The Good Life, Messud does not introduce 9/11 until very late in the narrative, and then does so in a way that serves to bolster all that precedes it. The affair between Murray and Danielle suddenly takes on a tragic weight, as does the involvement of Murray's saintly lawyer wife, Annabel, with a poor boy she represents. The ambition of the repellent Seeley is thrown into similar relief when his precious cultural irony comes up against the posters of the missing that appear in Lower Manhattan on the night the towers fall.

It is only the reviled Bootie, lacking the enervating irony that afflicts nearly everyone else in the novel, who shows signs of thriving in the dark, post-catastrophe atmosphere. It is a measure of Messud's dexterity that she has created a book about the end of irony that ends with such a memorable ironic twist.

Stephen Amidon is the author of "Human Capital" (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 02 October 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Warming up: a new double act