2006 wouldn’t be complete without another inept appearance from those dimwitted trendsetters at the Slate Audio Book Club! When last we checked in with the gang, they had moved on from racist generalizations and had declared Michael Pollan’s investigations into how food is prepared and distributed as “yuppie fussiness.” Not to be outdone, these infamous Three Amigos look into Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children.
Meghan O’Rourke is sometimes a good critic and the smartest of the bunch (although being smarter than Roiphe and Metcalf is as seminal an achievement as knowing how to speak Pig Latin). But she sounds bored here, unable to muster up a single shred of enthusiasm, which is odd given her enthusiasm for the book in the NYTBR. It’s as if she just emerged from a day of watching Antonioni’s L’Avventura on an endless loop to impress a few friends. She introduces Stephen Metcalf and Katie “Pipsqueak Ph.D.” Roiphe. She offers a plot summary that makes Messud’s splendid novel no fun at all, a noticeable huff in her voice representing one of two possibilities: either she has to spend another hour suffering generalizations from these two assclowns or she’s going to kill multimedia editor Andy Bowers for setting her up with this gig in the first place.
“We’ll get more into the plot because it’s somewhat ornate and elaborate,” huffs O’Rourke.
Did O’Rourke and I read the same book? If by “ornate and elaborate,” you mean a novel that features more than three characters, then I suppose O’Rourke has a point. Perhaps the assumption here made by the Book Club members (and Bowers) is that those listening in to this podcast have an attention span shorter than Warwick Davis. But if she genuinely believes that Messud’s book features a plot that’s difficult to follow, then perhaps she should be leading her fellow Book Club members into a discussion of Jacqueline Sussan’s oeuvre instead of Messud.
Katie Roiphe is the first to chirp in, remarking that the book is just great. Golly! Because first and foremost it’s a page-turner (again, Sussan sounds more her speed) and that Messud has “higher literary aspirations.” And you know, like, maybe there might be “some element of the kind of 19th century novel,” but, like totally, I can’t figure out what it might be. Could it be a novel of manners? That’s what Meghan said. Yeah! That’s 19th century novel, isn’t it? Maybe I can get to Malibu by day’s end and catch some waves.
But here’s Roiphe’s most profound observation: “It does go into their lives in a way that’s deeper than the kind of usual coming-of-age book, which this sort of falls into roughly into the category of.”
Metcalf then emerges into this folderol, offering the smug pronouncement that he found the early portions of the book better than the latter portions. “We can get into why later.” This is the kind of sentence you hear from someone who wants you to believe he knows what he’s talking about, but who hasn’t really thought out his argument.
Falling naturally into the role of smug parvenu, Metcalf then pronounces, “When I liked it most, I was thinking of Edith Wharton. When I liked it less, well, I was thinking of Zadie Smith’s last book. When I liked it least, I was thinking of David Lodge. And I think it oscillates between those three.”
Fantastic, Stephen. Not a single example elucidating why. Just generalizations as usual with random authors tossed around like throw rugs in a bathroom. It says something about Metcalf’s humorlessness that he thinks so little of David Lodge. But then The Emperor’s Children is neither an academic satire nor a sex comedy. Did this guy even read the damn book? Or was this one of those situations where Metcalf read the book the night before with his mouth permanently affixed to a bottle of bourbon?
Amazingly, Roiphe is at least capable of parsing the Anglicized vernacular within the book. (Metcalf finds this a distraction.) But alas, she sees this as a flaw, apparently unfamiliar with the Anglicized bloviators who can be overheard during any three-block walk through Chelsea or the Marina. Alas, Roiphe is more content to flap her maw rather than actually listen or stop to think.
Close to the four minute mark, I had had quite enough of this, particularly when Katie name-checked her dear mama.
The Slate Audio Book Club is a very good idea. But the only way for it to be meaningful is to up the intellectual bar, have the show’s participants offer some kind of enthusiasm, and pair Meghan O’Rourke up with two people who know what the hell they’re talking about.