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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Emperor of Ocean Park

Stephen L. Carter

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To purchase The Emperor of Ocean Park

Title: The Emperor of Ocean Park
Author: Stephen Carter
Genre: Novel
Written: 2002
Length: 654 pages
Availability: The Emperor of Ocean Park - US
The Emperor of Ocean Park - UK
The Emperor of Ocean Park - Canada
Echec et mat - France
Schachmatt - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

B : has its moments, and quite well written, but presentation fairly weak

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age . 9/6/2002 Penny Hueston
Christian Science Monitor . 13/6/2002 Ron Charles
Daily Telegraph . 15/6/2002 Sam Leith
The Economist A- 15/6/2002 .
Entertainment Weekly B- 10/6/2002 Mark Harris
Fortune A 27/5/2002 Erik Torkells
The Guardian . 1/6/2002 D.J.Taylor
The Independent B+ 25/5/2002 Graham Caveney
London Rev. of Books D 8/8/2002 Lorin Stein
The LA Times A 2/6/2002 Jonathan Shapiro
New Statesman B 3/6/2002 James Hopkins
The NY Rev. of Books A 27/6/2002 K. Anthony Appiah
The NY Times C 4/6/2002 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. . 9/6/2002 Ward Just
Newsweek F 10/6/2002 David Gates
The Observer A+ 16/6/2002 Peter Guttridge
Salon . 24/6/2002 Suzy Hansen
San Francisco Chronicle C 14/7/2002 David Kipen
The Times F 1/6/2002 Erica Wagner
TLS C 28/6/2002 Henry Hitchings
USA Today A+ 4/6/2002 Deirdre Donahue
The Washington Post B- 16/6/2002 Jonathan Dee
Die Welt C 24/8/2002 Wieland Freund

  Review Consensus:

  Nothing even approaching a consensus.

  From the Reviews:
  • "This book is being marketed as both a thriller and a novel of social commentary. For 657 pages of toneless if plausible prose I waited in vain to be thrilled. (...) This novel has received a lot of hype and the author a lot of money, but I fear it is a case of the emperor's new clothes. Worst of all, there is no sex." - Penny Hueston, The Age

  • "Imagine watching Scooby Doo while reading a thousand op-eds from the National Review. (...) (W)hat's truly exotic about the novel isn't its racial content, but its spiritual content. (...) His trickiest move, though, is making a legal thriller so smart and so silly at the same time." - Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor

  • "Professor Carter has written a dense, competent thriller certainly absorbing enough to carry its weight, but with a portentousness it doesn't really earn and a complexity it doesn't really need." - Sam Leith, Daily Telegraph

  • "His non-fiction indicated, and The Emperor of Ocean Park now confirms, that his prose is competent rather than inspired. (...) Just about everybody will be offended by something or other in The Emperor of Ocean Park. But the book will also make its readers think and laugh. Only the promised thrills are missing." - The Economist

  • "(A) humdinger." - Erik Torkells, Fortune

  • "To read more than a couple of chapters of Carter's lean, measured but in the end curiously decisive prose is to be struck by a kind of moral and intellectual toughness. (...) Inevitably for a work of this length -- and one that relies for its effects on the forensic flourishes of the genre -- it is not without its extended water-jumps and patches of boggy ground." - D.J.Taylor, The Guardian

  • "Not that I disliked this book. There are some terrific set pieces on academia and its discontents, and Carter's vignettes of familial rivalry are first rate. But I was not as impressed with the book as it is with itself." - Graham Caveney, The Independent

  • "(I)n terms of mise en scène and all-round plausibility, The Emperor of Ocean Park lies somewhere south of John Grisham and north of Nancy Drew. It is long-winded, shoddily put together and riddled with repetitions and small inconsistencies" - Lorin Stein, London Review of Books

  • "The Emperor is so rich in detail about a particular segment of American society that it only could have been written with unusual access to the subject and by someone with extraordinary powers of observation and expression. Carter has both." - Jonathan Shapiro, The Los Angeles Times

  • "His writing is assured and well-paced, and he is adept at feeding the reader just enough of the story for you to stay interested. For Carter, the devil is certainly in the detail. He describes each character from heel to chin, and every scene in earnest, as if already directing the film." - James Hopkins, New Statesman

  • "The Emperor of Ocean Park is a delightful, sprawling, gracefully written, imaginative work, with sharply delineated characters who dwell in a fully realized narrative world. (...) In his mastery of atmosphere and the intricacies of plot, Carter deserves comparison with such successful practitioners of the crime novel as Scott Turow, but what sets The Emperor of Ocean Park apart is the sense it provides of introducing us to a world within a world." - K. Anthony Appiah, The New York Review of Books

  • "The Emperor of Ocean Park (...) turns out to be two very different stories. The family drama is a closely observed, often affecting portrait of the Garland clan (.....) The thriller is a contrived, implausible and needlessly baroque melodrama" - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "But I think it's not much of an exaggeration to suggest that in Stephen Carter the black upper class has found its Dreiser." - Ward Just, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Iíve already forgotten not only the solutions to half the tedious mysteries Carter lugs around before unpacking them (...) but a lot of the mysteries themselves. The only one thatís really stuck is a sort of meta-mystery: why would a publisher pay $4.2 million to a first novelist manifestly without skills and apparently without gifts ?" - David Gates, Newsweek

  • "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. (...) The book is superb, both as a thriller and as a novel of social observation." - Peter Guttridge, The Observer

  • "Ostensibly, Carter's trying to pit his hero against the world and make Talcott's struggle seem truly impossible. But not only does Carter convince us that Talcott's rather lame, the rest of the characters seem directly drawn from the superlatives page of some boarding school yearbook. Rather than drawing out their complexity, Carter presents the sum of their achievements. Imagine all these enormous egos trying to have a conversation; often the dialogue drags." - Suzy Hansen, Salon

  • "If one wanted to build from scratch the book likeliest to confound critics and then sell like hotcakes, Stephen L. Carter's overwritten, overplotted, overlong and oversold legal thriller about the black bourgeoisie is precisely the book one would fabricate." - David Kipen, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Here is the thing about thrillers: they have got to be thrilling. This was, perhaps, the least thrilling book that I have read so far this year. (...) The structure is clumsy, the dialogue is poor and the characters are flat and stereotypical. But guess what ? Here is the rub: Random House paid $4 million for this dud. (...) This is a bad novel." - Erica Wagner, The Times

  • "Though redeemed in part by its bold attention to important issues, The Emperor of Ocean Park succeeds neither as uber-thriller nor as a dissection of the febrile vanities of upper-middle-class America." - Henry Hitchings, Times Literary Supplement

  • "This reader hasn't inhaled a novel so rich, rewarding and compelling since Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full (...) The mystery aspects had me reading the book at stop signs while driving. And the politics, both of the capital and the law school, are funny, if depressing. But the novel is far, far deeper." - Deirdre Donahue, USA Today

  • "The Emperor of Ocean Park is just about the sort of middling effort one might expect from an intellectual who likes to divert himself with thrillers and thinks he might even try his hand at one himself some day. (...) It is also funereally paced, though blame may fairly be divvied up on that score, since the manuscript appears to have been unsullied by any editor's pencil." - Jonathan Dee, The Washington Post

  • "Wo Schachmatt ein Detektivroman ist, wirkt der Roman gleichermaßen überintellektualisiert wie unterkonstruiert und braucht dann auch noch den deus ex machina, um zu seinem Ende zu kommen. Wo das Buch Thriller ist, steht ihm sein Rest Detektivroman im Weg, und immer wenn Carter seinen Gesellschaftsroman auf den Weg gebracht hat, muss er umkehren, um den verlorenen Thriller aufzulesen." - Wieland Freund, Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Before the book, the hype: The Emperor of Ocean Park comes with some baggage and a great deal of pre-publication publicity. The publishers of this book paid a very large amount for it. A staggeringly large amount. And they have high expectations for it (or are creating high expectations for it): in the United States, the first printing is reportedly half a million copies. (Hardcover fiction book sales of that level are achieved by only a handful of titles annually.) All this for a novel by an author who has never published a work of fiction. But Stephen L. Carter is not an unknown entity: he teaches law at a very prestigious school, and he has written several works of non-fiction that have reached larger audiences. Mr. Carter is also -- and this is apparently significant -- black (or African-American or whatever you prefer).
       Expectations are that The Emperor of Ocean Park will be a summer blockbuster for 2002. Will it ? Likely, yes. (Very likely, in fact.) Should it be ? Ah, that's a harder question to answer.

       The Emperor of Ocean Park is, above all, a long novel. It is over 600 pages long; it has well over 200,000 words. And, it must be said, it is, in fact, far too long. Carter rambles very far afield: for this story half the length should have sufficed. There is no question that he has enough material to go on (and on) about, and lots of things to say -- but the basic story (as he presents it) isn't strong enough to sustain so much.
       So what is The Emperor of Ocean Park ? For want of a better description, one might call it a pseudo-Grisham: it is a thriller (of sorts) involving people in the legal profession. (It must be emphasized, however, that Carter writes far better than John Grisham does; of course, we hardly know a published writer who doesn't .....) But Carter also tries to break out of this simple genre with his tome.
       The Emperor of Ocean Park is narrated by Talcott Garland (also called Tal and, confusingly (but, at at least one point, very significantly) Misha) -- a character bearing some resemblance to the author. Talcott is a law professor at a university (an alter-Yale) in Elm Harbor (an alter-New Haven). And, yes, he is African-American. Still, Carter can certainly be believed when he emphasizes in his Author's Note that "the story is just a story, and the characters are my own invention" (with a "handful" of acknowledged exceptions).
       The story begins with some fairly dramatic events that change Talcott's life -- much more, as it turns out, than he might have expected. For one, his father -- the "Emperor" of the title, Judge Oliver Garland, a one time Supreme Court nominee -- dies. For another, his wife, "Kimmer" (Kimberly) -- a practicing lawyer -- finds out she is on the short-list of contenders for a vacancy on the federal court of appeals.
       Oliver Garland's shadow hangs over much of the book. He was an imposing and important figure, and Talcott (like his siblings) hasn't quite come to terms with him. Death doesn't help speed up the process, especially since the judge apparently expected something of Talcott once this day came. Figuring out what exactly his father expects from him is one of the main plot-lines.
       Oliver Garland was a Supreme Court nominee -- but, as that description implies, he did not make it to the highest bench. He withdrew his name after the congressional hearings turned ugly, a blot and shame he never entirely recovered from. Garland was a Reagan nominee (for the seat that Antonin Scalia then got), an unlikely minority candidate proposed by a very conservative ideologue. But Garland was a complicated fellow, and had himself become a poster-boy conservative (and he continued to make a lot of money addressing right-wing groups even after he was disgraced).
       One event above all others -- above even his disgraceful failed nomination for the highest court -- defined the judge as his son knew him: the tragic death of his daughter in a never-solved hit and run accident. This, too, plays a role in the story that unfolds
       Talcott's life isn't picture-perfect either. He is happy enough in his teaching position, and he is the doting father of a toddler, Bentley, but his wife Kimmer is a real piece of work. A high-powered attorney in a too-small town, she spends most of her time working, often away from home. And it sure seems to Talcott that she is having an affair.
       Matters are also complicated by the fact that a colleague of Talcott's is on the same short-list as his wife: Marc Hadley. The judicial-appointment part of the novel is among its more entertaining aspects. It also offers, in its resolution, the one truly satisfying plot-twist in the novel.
       In his position, Carter has been privy to the actual behind the scenes goings-on that surround judicial nominations, confirmations, and appointments -- and the picture he paints is a disturbing one. Neither Kimmer not Hadley seem particularly well-qualified for the position (the federal court of appeals is the big times). Hadley, the academic, has only written one book and that at the beginning of his career, and Carter has him pointedly misstate "both the facts and the holding of the Supreme Court's decision in Griswold v. Connecticut" (as Carter reminds readers in his Author's Note). (Given that Griswold is familiar to every law student this is a particularly glaring mistake; oddly, in that scene Hadley is in the company of many other law professors and no one corrects him (though Talcott notes: "I am silent because I am considering whether to ask my doctor for a hearing test: I do not believe I could have heard all this nonsense right.").) How Hadley ever became (and remained) a law professor is one of the novel's unsolved mysteries.
       One of the most depressing lines in the book comes very early on, as Talcott writes about Kimmer:

She learned some time yesterday that her years of subtle lobbying and careful political contributions had at last paid off, that she is among the finalists for a vacancy on the federal court of appeals.
       A record of outstanding legal work, talent, intelligence are apparently secondary considerations when it comes to the federal judiciary -- so Carter. And unfortunately: Carter knows.
       It is the other nomination to the judiciary -- Talcott's father's -- that plays a much larger role in the novel. Ultimately what sank the old judge was his association with the highly dubious Jack Ziegler: Oliver Garland's college roommate, "disgraced former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency", and all-around bad guy with quite a bit of blood on his hands.
       Jack crops up upon the judge's demise. He wants something and he thinks Talcott is the man to get it for him. In return he ominously offers a guarantee that Talcott and his family will be well-protected (and he really, really means it).
       A thriller-tale of sorts develops. Talcott's sister, Mariah, is convinced their father was murdered, and pursues the most outlandish rumours (for the length of the novel) in her hunt to prove it. A lot of people are interested in something the judge might have left behind, and Talcott is widely seen as the key to getting it. The FBI, high powered attorneys, the police, the university community, and Talcott's own extended family help and hinder Talcott as he tries to make sense of everything.
       The thriller-tale is decent, most of the time, though littered with a fair amount of violence (cropping up incongruously in the otherwise rather sedate narrative, and fairly easily forgotten again). It is intertwined fairly nicely with Kimmer's judicial aspirations and Talcott's troubled university relationships. However, the resolution seemed, to us, to be a dud. Over the last quarter of the book the outlandish takes centre stage and the dénouement -- while unexpected -- is weak. It will make for a good movie, though -- indeed, the scenes seem written with the movie-version in mind. Plausibility was certainly not a major concern for Carter.
       There is a lot of chess involved in the thriller-tale. It makes for the nice black-white contrast, allows for the idea of pawns, etc. A chess problem also figures prominently in Talcott's efforts to determine what "arrangements" the judge had made. Still, Carter doesn't go too far overboard with the chess-spiel; even those who never played the game can understand what is going on. (Carter does perhaps go too far with his chapter and section titles: for example, Part I of the book is called "Nowotny Interference", there are chapter titles like "The Problemist", etc. But they are vaguely appropriate, and chess enthusiasts will no doubt be thrilled by them.)
       Beyond the chess, the thriller-tale is even more dizzyingly complicated. There are a lot of bad guys involved, and it is not always clear who is on which side. There are also lots of mysterious people involved. And Talcott, for example, gets followed a whole lot. Much of the thriller angle is overly simplistic -- movie stuff, really, with a good deal of over-the-top evil.
       The Emperor of Ocean Park is not a conventional whodunit: Carter withholds necessary clues and information until Talcott is ready to share them (or act on them). Most of the time this is isn't too annoying -- except for when Talcott fails to do the obvious (as happens far too frequently). (He also isn't very good at confronting people or asking the right questions.) Most notably he doesn't follow up with a cousin who believes she recognized a certain man -- finally only asking her about it when she brings it up again. Two-thirds of the way through the book, Carter begins a chapter: "I finally reach Addison" -- and though Talcott comes up with some half-hearted explanations of how hard and long he had been looking for his brother there was little of that noticeable before this and most readers will have been wondering for hundreds of pages why he hasn't talked with Addison. (Disappointingly, then, he isn't very good at talking to Addison, unable and unwilling to pin him down and get all the information he should have.) Talcott also doesn't share information with numerous characters that he should (including, occasionally, the police).
       Still, a far more egregious shortcoming is one of Carter's stylistic affectations: throughout the novel Talcott announces that he has realized or discovered something, or is about to do something, or that something dramatic has happened ... and then he moves on, not telling readers what it is. Instead, he moves ahead and then looks back, recounting whatever it was retrospectively. This narrative technique has its uses, and it can be very effective, but Carter's overuse of it is incredibly irritating. It is by far the greatest weakness in the book, making for a series of unnecessary hiccoughs that are about as enjoyable as actually having hiccoughs.
       (Information is also often only revealed long after it first crops up. The most notable example is Talcott's nickname, Misha, used right from the beginning of the book. Chess fans will have guessed its origin, but confirmation only comes some two-thirds of the way into the novel. Often it seems all the explanations in the book are similarly needlessly delayed (if not for quite so long).)

       Beside the thriller-tale, there is a lot more to The Emperor of Ocean Park. Carter goes on at great length about Talcott's day to day life, and all the things he has to deal with. Much of it touches on the thriller-aspect, but Carter goes into much more detail than one generally finds in such novels.
       Carter tries to paint a very broad canvas, especially in portraying the Garland family, focussing in -- at least for a while -- on many of the family-members. Talcott especially tries to come to understand the complex character that was his father -- and the events that shaped his life. (Talcott's mother is dead, and though reportedly much-loved by the judge, she is not much of a presence in the book.)
       The Emperor of Ocean Park is over-populated. There are far too many characters -- or rather: there is far too much information about far too many characters. Some of it is important, lots of it isn't. Family life -- especially upper middle class black family life --, academia, and the legal profession are all covered in great depth. Much of this is successful in its own right, but feels superfluous to the matter at hand.
       Race is important but does not seem central to the novel. It crops up, as it always seems to in America, but does not drive much of the action. Talcott is, of course, different from his colleagues and neighbours, and yet his lifestyle is much like theirs: that of a highly educated, upper middle class professional. (Like lots of well-positioned white folk he also complains constantly about being short of money. Of course, he is living in a world where his (white) brother in law reportedly got an eight figure amount just for changing jobs; everything is relative, but some relatives really emphasize that fact.)
       Talcott is not an entirely satisfactory central character. He is, in almost all ways and almost all of the time, not a man of action. (Given that his few stabs at taking initiative usually have unfortunate consequences it is perhaps not so surprising.) He doesn't even do much professionally: he is supposedly a law professor, but there ain't a lot of teaching going on around here (with only one really big classroom scene). From the beginning he has a lot of free time on his hands -- and he eventually gets even more. He is an apparently admirable father (we only have his word on the matter, but little Bentley certainly is at the center of attention much of the time). He isn't very successful as a husband -- but then Kimmer sounds like a tough gal to handle. (How they came to be a couple also overshadows their marriage -- at least at this point, about a decade into it.)
       Talcott tries to be an upstanding fellow. He tries to do the right thing, on every level -- including helping out at a soup kitchen. Religion also plays a significant role in his life, and influences how he comes to terms with what happens and also how he acts. The Emperor of Ocean Park is, in part, a morality tale; fortunately, Carter limits the moralizing, allowing some preacher folk to have their say and Talcott to have his, but not pounding his messages home too hard (or at least too intrusively).

       Carter does write fairly well. His presentation can annoy, but once he chooses to tell his story or to recount an episode, or to describe something or someone he does it well. The book reads well and quickly -- though the blur of characters and names can be a bit much.
       There are some rare presumptuous indulgences:
To the atheist, the cemetery is a place of the dead, vulgar and absurd, ultimately pointless; to the believer, a place of scary questions and terrifying answers.
       (How does Carter know what a cemetery is to atheists ? (The atheistically minded among us certainly do not see it anything like that.) And: what believers ? Surely to many of them a cemetery is, first and foremost, something very different than simply "a place of scary questions and terrifying answers" -- and quite often not that at all.)
       Most of the time, however, he keeps this sort of stuff in check.

       Carter could be a fine novelist. But in The Emperor of Ocean Park he is trying too hard. In trying to create some sort of Über-thriller crossed with a socio-critical meditation on upper middle class black life (and Angst) and the role of the well-educated black professional in modern America -- and a study on fathers and sons -- Carter has produced a flabby and wobbly book. There is substance here -- and there are some good scenes and stories, and many good ideas -- but there is also overmuch distraction (not the least of which is the thriller-aspect and its clownish central characters).
       The Emperor of Ocean Park makes for a decent beach read. Carefully (if not necessarily well-) structured, quite well written, with some thrills, some excitement, and some good ideas, it makes for a reasonable (if overlong, cluttered, and unevenly paced) entertainment. But you might want to wait for his next novel.

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The Emperor of Ocean Park: Reviews: Stephen L. Carter: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Stephen L. Carter teaches law at Yale University. He graduated from Stanford and Yale and clerked for Judge Spottswood W. Robinson and Justice Thurgood Marshall. He is the author of numerous works of non-fiction.

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© 2002-2010 the complete review

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