I am reading Paula Fox’s novel, Desperate Characters, and I’m grudgingly forking over the admiration. The grudging comes not because of anything having to do with Fox, but because of the backstory that the novel was “re-discovered” and republished due to Jonathan Franzen, who wrote an essay – always a venue for a Franzen ego-trip – about how good it was and that it was better than Updike or Bellow. Well, it is pretty obvious, given Franzen’s sexism, that he was using Fox as a proxy to say that he was better than Updike or Bellow – see, even a girl is better than those big boy writers!
I am reminded of Bellow – less of Updike – by the formal structure and scene of Fox’s novel. It is like Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet in that the novel takes the urban decay of NYC in the late sixties as its pervading scene. The adventure is in the street, while all the stage setting takes place in various lengthily described rooms, where the party, the lunch, or the wait for a doctor takes place. Such staginess is, perhaps, endemic to life in the metropolis, which unfolds, for the prosperous, in a milieu of interior decorating and chatter. There is an ineradicable theatricality about such scenes, and Fox is extremely good at making it into novelistic. One should also note how of the times this is – once you have established a standard of furnishing, the garishness and shoddiness of public space becomes all the more oppressive and threatening, all the more indicative of some catastrophic slip in the moral economy. J.K. Galbraith had already pointed out in the Affluent Society, which was written in the fifties, that underinvestment and undervaluing of public space was a creeping disaster in America. It was as though evidence of adequate funding would be taken by the middle class as an affront, since it would visibly use their tax dollars.
Fox’s brilliant idea is to set her central couple, Otto and Sophie Bentwood, in a gentrifying neighborhood in Brooklyn. That mongrel of a word, gentrifying, hadn't yet started running around in the vocabulary of the sixties, but all the same we recognize the attributes, the the contact zone that, once established, allows Fox to play off public squalor and private order to the effect of undermining both the security and the virtues of the latter. Although Fox is evidently on the liberal side as a person, as we can see from one of her authorial interjections about a George Wallace for President poster, still, the pathology of the downward tending exceeds the perception of our well to do protagonists by enough of a margin that one feels more than a whiff of the Moynihan Report. The poorer residents do things like piss out the window, throw garbage on their front lawn, and kneel, drunk and vomiting, on the sidewalk. Even doing more normal things, like borrowing 11 dollars for a train fare to see a dying parent, they do it with a sort of pathological panache.
The volume on this kind of things is, of course, turned up in Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet. Bellow is too good a novelist to be confined to his intentions, I should say. However much he intends Sammler to be a sort of moral center, Sammler’s sexism doesn’t really convince the reader that this is the morally centered way to see the world – the women he directs it upon are just too concretely realized, Bellow’s own opinions be damned. They are dreamed too well to follow the will of the dreamer. High art, y’all.
Fox is not aiming for the panoramic effect in Desperate characters; none of the characters “speak” for her, nor, in spite of the numerous references to urban decay, is there a lot of larger cultural pointmaking. There is a subtext of references to French literature – Sophie being a native speaker – with the chief names being Racine, Balzac and Zola. Like Balzac, Fox has no Flaubertian neurosis about inserting herself as an author in the text. This makes the text more complex. At one point, Otto, who we have seen as cranky and given to yelling at Sophie or grumbling at her at least, is in bed with his wife, when Fox ESPs his heart: “He loved Sophie – he thought about her, the kind of woman she was – and she was so tangled in his life that the time head sensed she wanted to go away from him had brought him more suffereing than he had conceived it possible for him to feel.”
A lesser author might have tried to wedge this news announcement about Otto’s deepest feelings into the story indirectly. Fox simply cuts to the chase. And it is all the bolder in that this announcement directly proceeds Otto’s marital rape of his wife, which ends, after he orgasms, with his thought: “He’d got her that time.”
Not, I should say, that Sophe recognizes Otto’s act as rape, either. The couple are a curious blend of insightful and blind.
This is to say: I’m glad I ignored Franzen’s recommendation and read the novel anyway.