Saturday, February 28, 2009

An Obsession

Lately I've been obsessed with this book. As a New Yorker who watched the Twin Towers burn and collapse from the Brooklyn Promenade, I am sensitive and critical about the use of it in fiction. To my ear, many attempts fall flat, including my own. I was one of the writers commissioned by Brave New World to write a short piece for the first anniversary of 9/11. It premiered with many others at Town Hall in 2002. I sat in the audience, driven insane by anxiety, surrounded by hundreds of people, as the curtain rose. I was so sure I had gotten the right amount of anguish, of humor. But I didn't. The plays that were the most successful dealt tangentally with the tragedy. Those that dealt directly sounded melodramatic. There just wasn't enough distance.

Cut to six years later and Ms. Messud's story of five New Yorkers rings true and poignant, funny and profound. The narrative swirls around a well known journalist and his coterie of daughter, wife, friend and nephew. The time is late spring, early summer 2001. The characters are drawn sharply, incisively. This is Sex and the City, but with a vengeance. I know these people or variations of them. They are confident, ridiculous, and insecure. They are ambitious, brilliant conversationalists, and well educated. The town is its usual chaotic, gorgeous hot stinking mess. The characters are almost adolescent in their desire for renown, to have fun, to make their mark on the world, have great sex.

I've read this book five times in the last year (it was published in 2007), and I've finally figured out why---in the specificity of the characters' transformation after 9/11, Messud brilliantly illuminates the universal. Before and after: irreducible, trite, cliched, yet nonetheless, powerful. It's hard to put into words. It's very easy to map the singularity of my own neurosis from the days that immediately followed; the nightmares--- I dreamt that people were standing outside my bedroom window, discussing how they were going to poison the water supply. Or, simply, a plane crashing into my building. I wasn't the only person dreaming these dreams.

What wasn't so easy to catalogue or articulate was the inchoate sense that nothing would ever be the same again. That we, as individuals, would never be the same again. That New York City would never be the same again. And every time a film or a book would attempt to parse this, put it into words, it fell flat, sounded forced. Until I read The Emperor's Children. I know that people in other cities, other towns, other states were horrified and saddened. But this was outside my bedroom window. This was my backyard. Messud translates this and its mysterious repercussions into a story that is neither exploitative or mawkish, just very, very true and very, very wise.

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