Before the dust from the collapsed towers had settled, conventional wisdom had congealed: "Everything has changed." But what about what matters most, the public's sensibility?
It has taken five years for 9/11 to receive a novelist's subtle and satisfying treatment, but it was worth the wait for Claire Messud's "The Emperor's Children." Her intimation of the mark the attacks made on the American mind is convincing because in her comedy of manners, as in the nation's life, that horrific event is, oddly, both pivotal and tangential.
Messud's Manhattan story revolves around two women and a gay man who met as classmates at Brown University and who, as they turn 30 in 2001, vaguely yearn to do something "important" and "serious." Vagueness -- lack of definition -- is their defining characteristic. Which may be because -- or perhaps why -- all three are in the media. All are earnest auditors and aspiring improvers of the nation's sensibility.
Marina is a glamorous child of privilege because she is the child of Murray, a famous liberal commentator given to saying things such as, to a seminar on Resistance in Postwar America, "once upon a time, poetry didmatter." A former intern at Vogue, Marina lives with her parents, on an allowance from them, on Central Park West. She is having trouble finishing her book on "how complex and profound cultural truths -- our mores entire -- could be derived from" analysis of changing fashions in children's clothes. "I want to make a difference." But get a job? "I worry that will make me ordinary, like everybody else." She is, her father recognizes, "stymied, now, by the very lack of smallness" in her life, "by the absence of any limitations against which to rebel."
Danielle, from Ohio, is a producer of documentaries who hopes to "articulate" an "ethos" into a "movement." Her current project, to raise "questions about integrity and authenticity," concerns women who had bad experiences with liposuction.
Julius, from Michigan, is an independent book and film reviewer "with a youthful certainty that attitude would carry him." His "life of Wildean excess and insouciance seemed an accomplishment in itself." He is "an inchoate ball of ambition," and is intermittently aware that at 30 "some actual sustained endeavor might be in order." That might, however, be difficult, given his belief that "regularity was bourgeois."
The problem the three share is not that their achievements, if there ever are any, will be ephemeral, but that their intentions to achieve them are ephemeral. Not solid, like those of the Australian who comes to New York "to foment revolution." With a new magazine.
Murray's nephew, Bootie, a morose autodidact -- imagine Holden Caulfield with his nose in a book of Emerson's essays -- rounds out Messud's central cast, each illustrating Messud's acute understanding of the Peter Pan complex now rampant among young adults who feel entitled to be extraordinary: "To be your own person, to find your own style -- these were the quests of adolescence and young adulthood, pushed, in a youth-obsessed culture, well into middle age."
Not until page 370 of Messud's delicious depiction of the quintet's tangled lives, "torn between Big Ideas and a party," do the planes hit the towers. Bootie -- it could have been any of these people preoccupied with manufacturing interpretations of fashions and fashions of interpretations -- has "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."Imagine that.
Before 9/11, Messud began writing a Manhattan novel about young adults living in the media hall of mirrors. After 9/11, she abandoned it. Then returned to it. Asked if she thought she had written a "9/11 novel," she demurs: "I wrote an August 1914 novel." Meaning, "The world I had set out to describe in 2001 had become historical."
But what had changed? The party, scheduled for 9/11, to launch the Australian's magazine and the revolution -- Renee Zellweger had accepted; Susan Sontag was a maybe -- was canceled, as was the magazine. Murray "formulated a reasoned middle ground": America did not deserve the attacks, but remember the West Bank. "He wasn't opposed to the invasion of Afghanistan, but qualified about its methods." Danielle decides to proceed with her liposuction documentary.
Nothing changes everything. And even huge events that, as Messud says, make "certain things seem particularly frivolous," leave most of our enveloping normality largely unscathed. That truth and a heightened sense of the frivolous are conducive to national poise five years into a long war.