Desperate Characters/Paula Fox: Reflections

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

I read four books while I was away (beyond all that I read about Berlin). I reported on the first—If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, Robin Black's crisp and smart debut short story collection—here. I'll be reporting on the others (The Paris Wife (hmmmmm) and The Coffins of Little Hope (a marvel!)) in days to come.

But this very early morning, I'm reflecting on the scouring brilliance of Paula Fox's Desperate Characters. It's a book I'd always meant to read, an author whose story I have followed.  That doesn't mean that I was prepared for the hard, bright smack of Fox's sentences, the relentless disintegration of a domestic arrangement that may or may not hold. We have Jonathan Franzen to thank for helping to bring Desperate Characters back into print and wide circulation. We have, in the Norton edition, his essay that suggests that the book is, "on a first reading," "a novel of suspense."

As the novel opens, Sophie Brentwood is bitten by a stray cat; Sophie's hand swells. Sophie should have the hand checked, but she is afraid.  She can imagine dire consequences—rabies, even death—but other underlying fears persist and complicate.  Three days will go by, and the wound will keep molting, oozing, disfiguring, haunting, and this is the running tension—this cat bite, this not knowing, this unwillingness to find out, this false hope that comforts lie elsewhere (in drink, in friendship, in secrets, in lashing out).  Into this strange, unsettling frame Fox inserts the fractures of a marriage in naked near stasis. Sophie and her husband, Otto, are childless.  Otto is abandoning a business partnership with a long-time friend, Charlie—bating him, hating him, feeling abandoned and abused by him. Brooklyn, finally, is scathing and scabrous and ill-equipped, in these late 1960s, to wrap this couple in a numbing sheen.

Sophie and Otto know too much. They see too much. They both despise excessively and love forlornly.  Is this all that marriage is? All it offers? Is there refuge among the refuse? In whose arms can one trustingly take shelter? Desperate Characters is a brutal book, a lacerating book, and if that makes it a hard book to read, it also makes it an impossible book to put down. I, for one, read the bulk of it while being jostled about during a long wait at the Berlin airport.

There are easy books, and there are hard books, and I will be honest: I prefer the latter.  I want to be tested.  I want to think.  I want to study a book and ask, in awe, How in the world was this made?  Desperate Characters has me asking.


Serena said...

I have not heard of this book until now, but I love reading "hard-to-read" books...they're so challenging and worthwhile. Thanks for the review...and calling my attention to the new edition

Melissa Sarno said...

I enjoy your 'reflections'. Something about that festering wound intrigues me. It does sound like a hard novel but I like those.

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