There is room for one literary critic right now, and James Wood has the job. Plenty of people review books and comment about them, but he's the only one with theories—or at least the only one whose theories seem to matter. With two words, "hysterical realism," introduced a half-dozen years ago in a kind but biting review of Zadie Smith's White Teeth, he brought down a whole raft of more senior titans—Rushdie, DeLillo, Foster Wallace, Pynchon. They all, he argued, care more about information than character, producing a manic overflow of facts and happenstance that masks an unwillingness to reckon with the real dramas of human life.

Wood is also married to Claire Messud, whose impeccably fun and thoroughly humane new novel, The Emperor's Children, has suddenly and deservedly become the literary hit of the season.

It may seem reductive, gossipy, or sexist to try to make something out of the private alliance between a novelist and a critic, but c'mon. The partners artists choose, especially when they are other artists, open a new window on their art: Leibovitz and Sontag, Dylan and Baez, Scorsese and Minnelli. Why else are people (well, a few of us at least) still fascinated by one of the worst marriages of all time: Mary McCarthy and Edmund Wilson? When Wood published his first novel, The Book Against God, after years of writing criticism, the obvious question was: How well does his novel stand up to his theories? The question is of almost equal interest when the novel is by his wife.

One reason Wood is so influential, and so appealing—and sometimes so frustrating—is that he has a very specific idea about what he thinks a novel should be. He mistrusts untethered invention. And he mistrusts pure satire, for standing in judgment above its subjects. What he argues for is a "comedy of forgiveness," in which the reader is brought onto the same plane as the characters, uncertain perhaps of their motivations but sure of their shared humanity. If Messud were only a satirist, she might have called her novel The Emperor's New Clothes. But it's a sign of the comedy of forgiveness to recognize that emperors, even if they have no clothes, do have children. For what is simultaneously more ennobling and deflating than parenthood? You make people, and then watch them grow up and judge you.

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The "emperor" in The Emperor's Children is the charmingly arrogant self-made liberal crusader Murray Thwaite, an establishment antiestablishment journalist who has parachuted into every hot spot from Selma to Baghdad. (He is one of several reasons you may feel as if you've been welcomed back into the world of On Beauty, the latest by none other than Zadie Smith—a book that Wood liked much better than her first two. Both novels have an unerring ear for the way the cultured class talks, and both concern middle-aged intellectual men shown from the withering perspective of their families. The difference is that when reading Smith you still feel like you are solving an equation for about 15 variables, while with Messud there is generally only an X and a Y and maybe, unspoken, a Z. Messud's math may be simpler, but there's an intensity to the way she wraps things around to the same points again and again.) Murray's "children" are five, only one of them his own: Marina, his beautiful daughter; her friends from college, Danielle and Julius; Frederick, his young nephew, known reluctantly even to himself as Bootie; and Ludovic Seeley, a vulpine magazine editor with a gift for intimacy. They all converge on Manhattan, where each would like to follow Murray in the path toward cultural power, although only Seeley sees his path with any confidence.

Like Murray, they are all—with the exception of the "mysteriously kindly" Danielle, who embodies the novel's spirit of forgiveness—revealed to be monsters of one sort or another. But the cold and thrilling calculation with which Messud dissects their sins is balanced at all times by sympathy, most of all for Murray: hypocritical, selfish, and vindictive, he remains conceivably deserving of the love that so many of the characters have for him. Of his children, the one who becomes the most monstrous is so horrible because he refuses to forgive, slashing at the ties of family with a chilling and inhumane clarity and becoming the unsettlingly empty center at the close of this comic novel that succeeds in bringing Wood's strict theories to warm life. Happy couples may all be boringly alike, but they can, once in a while, make not-boring, lively art.