Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

Desperate Characters was published in 1970 yet amazes with it’s timely portrait of malaise and fear in reaction to a chaotic and changing world.  In a gentrifying Brooklyn, Sophie and Otto’s marriage is fragile thing, both touching and intimate and also distanced and layered with secrets and small, everyday meanness. The book follows Sophie in the aftermath of a cat bite as she tries to negotiate what to do about the bite, her connection to Otto and the recent estrangement from close colleagues.  It’s not the plot that drives us through but Fox’s vision, which is at once miniature and epic. Is it offensive to call novels by women domestic? The term seems to imply that men don’t also live in domestication, as if our coffee, our food, the beds we sleep in, our bodies and the doorway we come home to everyday isn’t absolutely essential to our lives regardless of our sex.  Yet the lens through which we see the world falling apart is necessarily domestic and central to our lives. Like Fox’s our view is limited (it’s a short novel) fractured, ambivalent, and above all, detailed. A portrait of a marriage is the lens here and through Sophie and Otto we see race and class and life unfolding in America and also intimacy itself—a delicate yet strengthening, embroidered and mysterious thing. Often termed a “writer’s writer,” Fox has written a book that remains central among her peers—Roth, Updike, Delillo—and beloved by younger authors like David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen. (The latter wrote the book’s forward.) In its stylish, Franzen writes, “carved” prose she shows us all, writers and readers how each word is precious.  I know I will return to savor its elegant prose many times.

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