Observer Review: The Emperor Of Ocean Park By Stephen L Carter Essay, Research Paper
Supreme EmperorThe Emperor of Ocean ParkStephen L CarterJonathan Cape ?18, pp657After Jonathan Franzen’s T he Corrections and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated, The Emperor of Ocean Park is the third recent American novel to arrive here with the hyperbole that comes with a massive advance and ecstatic US critical reaction. But The Emperor of Ocean Park lives up to the hype.Carter’s debut novel is an assured combination of almost satirical social observation and thriller that gains much from a setting not often described in modern fiction – that of upper middle-class African-Americans in Washington and New York.In an author’s afterword Carter is at pains to deny that his novel is in any sense a roman à clef. Nevertheless, as Yale professor of law and scion of such an upper middle class family, he is describing a world he knows well and analyses with often biting humour.The novel begins with the suspicious death of Judge Oliver Garland, the conservative patriarch of an affluent African-American family. The family is networked into the highest echelons of government, business and crime.Years earlier Garland, a ruthlessly ambitious man, had received a judge’s ultimate accolade and goal: a nomination to the Supreme Court. However, he had never really recovered from the national scandal that ensued when, humiliatingly, he had to withdraw, abruptly and publicly, in front of a television audience of millions.His unexpected death focuses attention on that scandal anew. But his law professor son, Talcott, is concerned that a greater scandal is lurking in the murky underbelly of his father’s life and political career. Garland has left Talcott a mystery to solve. In attempting to do so Talcott catches sight of this greater scandal and decides not to shy away from it.Talcott’s investigation takes him from the Ivy League law school at which he teaches, via the wealthy people’s retreat of Martha’s Vineyard, to Washington DC, America’s centre of political and judicial power. This rich social milieu allows Carter to present a number of well-observed African-American characters, many of whom – as in reality, apparently – are politically radical but socially conservative.It also allows Carter to discuss in passing some big issues – race, class, justice, morality and religion – that he has already analysed in more detail in several influential non-fiction books. In addition, Talcott’s exploration of his father’s past also allows for an examination of the seedy side of the Nixon and Reagan presidencies.However, none of this gets in the way of the thriller elements of the plot – Carter pulls off the difficult trick of discussing serious issues but in the context of an absorbing and exciting mystery. A chess enthusiast who apparently played the game on the internet for hours while putting the plot together, he has a written a well-paced, tense and very tricky narrative. As Talcott proceeds there are other deaths to confront and his own life and the lives of his family are put at risk before the mystery is unravelled in a series of striking resolutions.The book is superb, both as a thriller and as a novel of social observation.