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The Emperor Has No Clothes
Daniel Kornfield • A review of the book The Emperor of Ocean Park
January 2003

A recently released NYT bestseller, The Emperor of Ocean Park has caused a bit of a stir. In fine Yale Free Press fashion, allow me to tell you what side of the stir you should find yourself on. I will accomplish this by masking my controversial but oh-so-right arguments with wry humor, distracting you while subtly infiltrating your opinions with my own thought.

Still with me? Here’s the plan. Let’s begin by listening to what the book proclaims about itself. Then I’ll show you what the book truly expresses. Then you can decide whether or not you want to read it.

Okay, back to step one: what does the book proclaim about itself? I’m betting it will be something nice. Funny how that works.

The first paragraph of the novel’s inner jacket: “An Extraordinary fiction debut: a large, stirring novel of suspense that is, at the same time, a work of brilliantly astute social observation. The Emperor of Ocean Park is set in two privileged worlds: the upper crust African American society of the eastern seaboard—old families who summer on Martha’s Vineyard— and the inner circle of an Ivy League law school. It tells the story of a complex family with a single, seductive link to the shadowlands of crime.”

Step two: Translation from Publisher-ese to Reader-ese, one thought at a time:

“An extraordinary fiction debut”

This was bound to be a true statement, regardless of the actual quality of the writing; Stephen L. Carter, a professor at Yale’s very own Law School, received a record-smashing $4.2 million advance for two books – the second book is yet to be published. This is the largest advance ever given to a first time writer.

“novel of suspense”

I suppose it is. The narrator’s father, one Oliver Garland, a powerful judge, is now a dead judge, and suspected murdered. All the mystery, danger and suspicions that could accompany such a plot, are here for the savoring. But this doesn’t qualify as a thriller— it’s a slow read at first, and you’ll keep turning the pages only if you’re into the character development. The Hardy Boys style of ominous or significant ending to each chapter doesn’t quite pull the momentum of the book along. Talcott may well be concerned, and then even more concerned and bewildered as well—but the reader is not frightened, not convinced there is any impending doom for a man who must last another six hundred pages. The one character with an immediately compelling aura of peril is ... already dead from the start.

“a work of brilliantly astute social observation”

Ah, here we go. This is why the book banked so much cash, and this is why it is getting a review from yours truly.

Talcott is the protagonist and first-person narrator of this book, and his thoughts are the reader’s guide to social observation. Talcott happens to be a law professor at an Ivy League school. He is also an African American, or as he puts it throughout the book, a member of the “darker nation.” Whadya know… these two defining characteristics happen to be shared by the story’s author. As such, it is impossible not to wonder to what extent Talcott is a direct mouthpiece for Carter’s own intuitions, thoughts and frustrations. And of these last, there are plenty. When Talcott’s fundamental frustrations, most often related to race relations, are prodded by some unsuspecting soul, this tends to ignite the narrator’s temper, as symbolized by an imaginary red mist that begins to accumulate around the instigator’s head. Talcott is outwardly cool (cold, even) and controlled, so his temper is usually confined within his mind.

We the readers get to dwell in that mind. It is overdriven, constantly analyzing its surroundings, and then analyzing its own analysis and feelings. It acknowledges even that which it wishes to hide from itself, and dwells on that which it wishes to not think about. This is what I mean by “no clothes”—we are explicitly presented with Talcott’s every vulnerability and unworthy thought, along with his strength and his virtues. (Sad when you have to explain a part of your own title, isn’t it?) We are also presented with piercing reflections upon the past that add to the character development of the other personas in the novel, in a way that does not feel overly subjective.

Thus we are immersed in a thought-heavy narrative—three parts speculation and internal reaction for every one part actual event, movement or dialogue. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it is what actually drives the novel, making it somewhat less exciting but far more thought provoking than a Grisham.

Talcott is a part of a seldom written about subculture, the Black elite. This identification forms a crucial part of his own identity and thoughts. His musings are continually influenced by an acute awareness of his membership in the darker nation and its relationship to the paler nation. Race relations are a dominant theme, but fortunately they are not the only theme developed in the social commentary.

Talcott’s role of law professor offers him opportunity to wax eloquent about the misguided and empty ambitions of those who reach the top, only to realize they have wasted their lives, neglected their families, and accomplished nothing. Such moralizing is common in Talcott’s thought, but somewhat tolerable insofar as it is generally presented within his own inner struggle to abide by the standards he believes in, rather than the preaching of a perfect man— for to our jaded ears a perfect man would necessarily be an outsider with no real credible voice on all-too-human affairs.

The Emperor of Ocean Park’s plot twists accentuate the role of politics in Talcott’s life, politics on a very personal level, from within his fragile marriage to his supposedly collegial career, from his interaction with friends to his relationship with his deceased father. Washington DC didn’t even have to come up to provide a nasty picture of networked societies of bald ambition, posturing, “favors” and who you know… but Washington DC’s ugliness is included in the picture.

And now we must return to the subject of racial tension. It is disturbing how much the color of Talcott’s skin has a grip on the way he views the world around him, and surely this is a part of the message Carter is trying to convey in writing the book. Talcott is virtually obsessed with his darker nation/paler nation distinction. I would like to think that is just his problem. But his is certainly not an unusual case, and deeper investigation suggests that it is our collective problem as a nation. I would like to say he is simply pathological. But it wasn’t until recently that our laws stopped blatantly supporting the very division that I would rather dismiss as nonessential. I would like to say he should be able to approach the challenges race presents in America today without getting emotionally dragged around by them. But his is a deep resentment stemming from real injustice and real people, and it is no wonder this is transposed to unhappy suspicions of further racist thought and conduct in an almost paranoid fashion.

Even so, he doles out his criticism across the board, to blacks and whites, liberals and conservatives, often with some dour maxim on the human race as a whole. Let me offer some examples from the book.

“Did you hear the questions I asked your brother?” “Yes, ma’am.” Something registers in the sergeant’s face: why didn’t I think to say ma’am? Because she is white and I am black? Is rudeness the legacy of oppression? Downward, downward, civilization spirals, and all we Americans seem able to do about it is to quarrel over the blame.
--p.125

This is what conservatives have spawned with their welfare cuts and their indifference to the plight of those not like themselves, say my colleagues at the university. This is what liberals have spawned with their fostering of the victim mentality and their indifference to the traditional values of hard work and family, my father used to tell his cheering audiences. In my sour moments, it strikes me that both sides seem much more interested in winning the argument than in alleviating these women’s suffering. Service. Theo Mountain is right. No other answer but that one.
--p.154

Yes, the true insight that this book brings to the reader is the psychology of race through the eyes of a black elite from a conservative background. Talcott lives in a wealthy neighborhood, but is aware that his is the third black family ever to own a house there. He takes bitter pride in the fact that he owns the very house which once belonged to a man that denied African Americans entrance to the same school at which he is now a tenured professor.

In some sense, this book turns liberal views on race on their head. Talcott is particularly sensitive to the fact that he is one of the few of his race who seem to have “made it.” He has overcome institutional racism on both the private and public level. On the other hand, he realizes the need to stop fighting over whose fault it is that blacks have been oppressed in this country and assuming that blacks can not fend for themselves. While his – and Carter’s own – conclusions appear liberal (for example both the author and narrator support affirmative action), he is operating in an inherently conservative framework that includes personal initiative and private efforts. Hence his focus on service and sacrifice on the part of individuals. He blames liberals for liking affirmative action because “they can tell themselves that they are working for racial justice while pretending that the costs do not exist.” (pg. 182) Hence, Carter provides us with a very stark picture of the choices, often tragic, that must be made. There is no such thing as a free lunch. As such, the book has much to teach liberals about their own views on race.

By the same token, there is much for conservatives to learn from this book. Talcott’s thoughts and feelings are credible. Insofar as they surprised and upset me, this is a sign that this book has something to teach. There is a reality to being black in America, whether rich or poor, whether truly oppressed or not, which is deeply emotionally tied to racial identity. Whether or not one thinks this is justified, it is there and must be acknowledged as such.

Daniel Kornfield is a senior in Davenport College.


 
 

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