Desperate Characters by Paula Fox
This classic of literary fiction, written in 1970, is also a classic example of a book that was lost to readers, then found. In 1999, when this novel—and all Paula Fox’s adult novels—fell out of print, interest in the author and her work was almost singlehandedly revived by Jonathan Franzen, who called Desperate Characters the “greatest realist novel of the postwar era.” Though it wasn’t the first such accolade to come along. When the book was first reissued in 1980, Irving Howe compared it to other great short novels of the century, including Billy Budd and The Great Gatsby. Nearly two decades later, David Foster Wallace described the novel as a “towering landmark of postwar Realism…A sustained work of prose so lucid and fine it seems less written than carved.”
Fox is the author of numerous novels for adults and children as well as two memoirs. She now perhaps best known for Desperate Characters, though her 2001 memoir, Borrowed Finery, was widely praised for its portrayal of the abandonment by her parents when she was a girl. Her bio in The Paris Review reads, “Paula Fox has led an unusual life. Born in 1923, the unwanted daughter of largely absentee parents, she spent her childhood in the care of a series of guardians, some more reliable than others.” The imprint of those difficult early years proved fruitful in the end for the writer’s work.
Fox is a writer who, to my mind, aligns with writers such as Mavis Gallant and A.S. Byatt. Thomas Mallon called her style “Dickensian” and “molecular,” comparing it to Nicholson Baker’s in depth of detail. The novel concerns a couple Sophie and Otto Bentwood, a childless, well-to-do couple who have renovated a brownstone in Brooklyn Heights that has yet to turn around. Their three-story home of polished floors and beautiful art and carpets and unique objects is surrounded by street crime, addicts, and feral cats. One cat in particular launches the action when a sympathetic Sophie gives it a saucer of milk and the cat ungratefully, and viciously, scratches her.
But it is Sophie’s determination to ignore the wound, even as it festers and grows worse, that drives the tension. And soon additional afflictions surface, as though the environment and the marriage and even the world the couple inhabits, is similarly infected. As Fox writes, “Illnesses do their work secretly, their ravages are often hidden.”
The writing is nonpareil. Here’s Fox describing an ashtray: “On the chromium lip of one, a cigar butt gleamed wetly like a chewed piece of beef.”
Or, a party:
“Now it was like the labored conversation among guests at a late hour after there is nothing more to say, nothing but ashes in the fireplace, dishes in the sink, a chill in the room, a return to ordinary estrangement.”
Decades after it was first published, Desperate Characters continues to find readers, and deservedly so. What’s confounding is how this excellent book fell into obscurity in the first place. You can read the story about how Desperate Characters was reintroduced to a new generation of readers here. And read Paula Fox, in The Paris Review’s The Art of Fiction series.