Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

I can’t quite recall how I first heard of American writer Paula Fox, possibly via a conversation on Twitter or through the blogosphere, but either way she sounded interesting. First published in 1970, Desperate Characters was her second novel. After being out of print for several years, it was reissued in 1999 and is now regarded by some as a potential classic of 20th-century American literature.

IMG_2362

Set in New York in the late 1960s, this short novel follows a weekend in the lives of Sophie and Otto Bentwood, a childless upper middle-class couple living in Brooklyn. The Bentwoods are privileged; they have plenty of money, a Mercedes-Benz sedan, and a second home on Long Island. In many ways, they exist in a world cocooned from poverty, social deprivation and disorder.

One Friday evening, as the Bentwoods are dining at home, a familiar stray cat reappears at their back door. Sophie takes pity on the cat, gives it a saucer of milk and strokes its back, an action that prompts the creature to bite her. Here’s how it happens:

She smiled, wondering how often, if ever before, the cat had felt a friendly human touch, and she was still smiling as the cat reared up on its hind legs, even as it struck at her with extended claws, smiling right up to that second when it sank its teeth into the back of her left hand and hung from her flesh so that she nearly fell forward, stunned and horrified, yet conscious enough of Otto’s presence to smother the cry that arose in her throat as she jerked her hand back from that circle of barbed wire. (pg. 6)

That’s a great passage. It contains so many different elements: the hints about Sophie’s character; the danger lurking close to home; the sense of violation.

At first, Sophie does little to attend to the bite. She is reluctant to seek medical treatment, passing the incident off as ‘nothing’, even though deep inside she feels vitally wounded in some way. Having fed the cat on at least one previous occasion, she feels bemused and somewhat betrayed by its attack. As time passes fear begins to set in: her hand swells up; signs of infection start to appear; someone mentions the possibility of rabies. All this only serves to unnerve Sophie; even everyday objects start to appear somewhat unsettling.

The living room looked smudged, flat, Objects, their outlines beginning to harden in the growing light, had a shadowy, totemic menace. Chairs, tables, and lamps seemed to have only just assumed their accustomed positions. There was an echo in the air, a peculiar pulsation as of interrupted motion. Of course, it was the hour, the light, her fatigue. Only living things do harm. […] Who would pity her in her childish terror, her evasion, her pretence that nothing much had happened? Life had been soft for so long a time, edgeless and spongy, and now, here in all its surface banality and submerged horror was this idiot event – her own doing – this undignified confrontation with mortality. (pg. 47)

One of the most striking things about this novel is the way in which Fox uses the cat bite as a catalyst, a starting point for further exploration. In effect, the incident is the first of a number of disturbing events that threaten to destabilise the Bentwoods’ seemingly harmonious existence over the course of the weekend. For instance, Sophie answers the telephone to a heavy breather; a stone is thrown through the window of a friend’s house; their holiday home is vandalised. One by one the episodes pile up. In one memorable scene, a visibly distressed black man knocks at the Bentwoods’ door, pleads to use their phone and ends up borrowing money from them. In many respects, it feels like an invasion of their bourgeois world.

Desperate Characters is a subtle and very effective character study; slowly but surely Fox peels away the layers to expose Sophie’s vulnerability and Otto’s failings. In some ways it reminded me a little of Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the WeddingI didn’t love it quite as much as Cassandra, but that said, Baker’s novel sets a very high bar. In the end, I was left wondering what it is that Sophie fears the most. She clearly dreads the prospect of injections, but is she more unsettled by the threat of rabies or by the reality of her life with Otto? As we follow Sophie over the course of the weekend, we learn of her previous affair with a publisher named Francis, a relationship that obviously meant a great deal to her. When the affair ended, and Francis returned to his wife, Sophie was left feeling as though she had suffered ‘an irreversible loss’. In this scene, she reflects on her marriage to Otto, a man in the midst of his own troubles:

If all these months, she had so ardently lived a life apart from Otto without his sensing something, it meant that their marriage had run down long before she had met Francis; either that or worse – once she had stepped outside rules, definitions, there were none. Constructions had no true life. Ticking away inside the carapace of ordinary life and its sketchy agreements was anarchy. (pg. 62)

Fox uses contrasts to good effect throughout the story. There is a striking difference between the order of the Bentwoods’ house and the chaos Otto and Sophie encounter when they call upon Mr Haynes, the somewhat unreliable caretaker of their Long Island retreat. Here’s a brief excerpt from the description of the Haynes’ house, a property that looks as if it has been ‘assembled by a centrifuge’.

Rubber tires leaned against every surface. Cans, tools, pails, lengths of hose, rusted grills, and summer furniture were spread out in front of the house, presenting a scene of monkeylike distraction – as though each object had been snatched up and then dropped, a second’s forgetfulness erasing all memory of original intention. A clothesline was strung across the porch and from it hung a few limp rags. A bicycle with twisted handlebars lay against the steps. And from a small chimney black smoke poured as if, inside the house, the inhabitants were hurriedly burning up still more repellent trash before it drowned them. (pg 131-132)

There is a broader significance to the story, too. It seems to signal a crisis in a certain type of American life, an unravelling of the American Dream in a changing world. I’ll finish with a final quote from Charlie, Otto’s former business partner and fellow lawyer (the dissolution of their partnership adds another element of tension to the narrative). Even though he is alone with Sophie, Charles’ comments refer to both her and her husband:

“You don’t know what’s going on,” he said at last. “You are out of the world, tangled in personal life. You won’t survive this…what’s happening now. People like you…stubborn and stupid and drearily enslaved by introspection while the foundation of their privilege is being blasted out from under them.” He looked calm. He had gotten even. (pg. 39)

For the interested, here’s a link a profile of Paula Fox published in The Guardian.

Desperate Characters is published by Flamingo, an imprint of HarperCollins. Source: personal copy. Book 11/20, #TBR20 round 2.

58 thoughts on “Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d like it, Marina. There’s quite a lot to process here – any one of a number of different incidents in the novel could have been spun out into a broader story, but the cumulative effective is very powerful. The sort of book you want to reread as soon as you’ve finished it.

      Reply
  1. gertloveday

    “There’s a kind of poetic mind that sees connections between things. I think that ability to make connections is part of the open secret of what a writer does.” Paula Fox said that in an interview in The Paris Review’s Art of Fiction series. I think that’s what you’re on to here in seeing the ramifications of something that seems so ordinary as a cat-bite.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ooh, I’ll have to take a look at that Paris review piece. (Have we had a conversation about Paula Fox before? I’m wondering if that’s where I might have heard of her.) Fox’s use of the cat bite is very clever as it seems to trigger so many different things, not only Sophie’s sense of anxiety but a much broader crisis as well. It’s very effective. Do you think you might read it? I’d love to see another take on this one.

      Reply
      1. gertloveday

        We may have, or perhaps Guy referred to her. I have actually read this, but when I went back to my notebook I found I hadn’t written anything! I thought it was a perfect little work in its own terms. It reminded me of Jean Rhys in its elegant coldness and desperation.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh, that may have been it! I hadn’t thought about a connection with Jean Rhys’ work, but now you mention it there is a sense desperation about Sophie’s situation. I can see why she came to mind…

          Reply
  2. kaggsysbookishramblings

    I confess I’ve never heard of Fox till now, but she sounds fascinating (I read the Guardian profile, and thanks for the link!) Sounds like a wonderful novel that really captures a particular era and mindset – I don’t read so much American fiction as I used to, and this would be a good way to get back to it…. :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re welcome. Yes, I think you’re right – the period and setting are quite important in this story. It reminded me a little of Renata Adler’s Speedboat in that respect – a sort of feeling of unease and uncertainty in America at the time. Speedboat came out in the mid-seventies, but there’s a similar feel to it.

      Paula Fox is very interesting, isn’t she? I quite fancy her memoir, Borrowed Finery, about which I’ve heard great things!

      Reply
  3. TJ @ MyBookStrings

    I love the cover of your edition! I’ve never heard of Fox before, but I will look into this book now. It sounds wonderful. Have you read Sandor Marai’s Embers? Even though the setting is very different, I was reminded of this when you mentioned how Fox slowly exposes what is really going on, which is very different from what is seems like on the surface.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Great cover, isn’t it? I must admit to being attracted by it too. I haven’t read Embers, although funnily enough it’s been on my radar for quite a while. I’ve picked it up in bookshops and then put it down again, mainly because I’ve been trying to focus on reading from my shelves. It does sound excellent, though, and your comments have pushed it up the wishlist! I’ll see if I can squeeze it into my next round of book buying.

      Reply
  4. Brian Joseph

    The way that the plot of this one sounds intriguing.

    Though I do not know all the details concerning the story and themes, I would add that a lot of people managed to stay within their safe bubbles decades after the narrative of this book takes place.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I guess this idea of being cocooned from the reality of one’s surroundings is a perennial theme, one that could apply to many situations both past and present. That said, the period and setting do seem quite relevant here. As far as I can tell, the late sixties and early seventies were rather unsettling times in American culture/history. In some ways, this story feels quite prescient, possibly an early sign of things to come?

      Reply
  5. Naomi

    The title of this one grabbed me right away. And, that quote about the cat bite…
    I love a good character study. I’m going to check out Cassandra at the Wedding, too. Thanks!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Who could resist a novel entitled Desperate Characters? I knew I couldn’t! Glad you like the quote about the cat bite. Fox packs so much into such a short passage – it’s quite striking.

      Cassandra at the Wedding is just superb, and Desperate Characters is excellent, too. Two sure-fire winners right there…

      Reply
  6. Anokatony

    Beside’s ‘Desperate Characters’, Paula Fox also wrote the fine novels ‘The Widow’s Children’ and ‘The Servant’s Tale’ both of which I’ve read and are excellent.
    Wikipedia has some salacious gossip regarding Paula Fox, Marlon Brando, and Courtney Love. Check it out.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Sounds as if I’ve got a lot to look forward to with Paula Fox. Her memoir, Borrowed Finery, looks very interesting too.

      I’m intrigued by your comments on Fox’s wiki entry. The Guardian profile mentions the link to Courtney Love, but I wasn’t aware of any potential connection with Marlon Brando. I’ll take a look. :)

      Reply
  7. Violet

    I loved Cassandra at the Wedding – such a slow reveal and fiendishly clever characterisations. This sounds wonderful, too. I checked my library catalogue but they only have Fox’s memoir, Borrowed Finery, which sounds harrowing. I need to read more American women writers, so I may have to buy it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think it’s the layering and slow reveal that reminded me of Cassandra and the Wedding – there’s something similar about the mood of this one, too. Also, both stories unravel over the space of a couple of days. I think you’d like it, especially as you loved Cassandra.

      Borrowed Finery looks very interesting, but I agree, it does sound rather dark and disturbing. Desperate Characters might be your best bet if you can get hold of a copy!

      Reply
  8. kimbofo

    I read this one years ago after having found a very beaten up copy in a charity shop that had an introduction by Jonathan Franzen. It’s a short book but packs so much in. I like your suggestion that it’s about the unraveling of the American Dream.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Kim. I’m glad you liked this one as well – it sounds as though we’ve got the same edition as my copy includes Jonathan Franzen’s intro. I just feel there might be a broader significance to the sense of unease and disturbance to Sophie and Otto’s lifestyle. The period and setting seem quite important to the story.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Ooh, thank you, Kim – it’s good to have a recommendation. I’ll definitely keep an eye out for a second-hand copy as it was also Fox’s favourite among her novels.

          Reply
  9. litlove

    I heard about Paula Fox on Danielle’s blog (A Work in Progress) a couple of years ago and have been wanting to read her ever since. I think Danielle read this but also one of Fox’s memoirs, which she said was very good. I am a sucker for the psychological angle, so am sure I’d love her, if I could only find the time to fit her in! Lovely review, Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, thanks for the tip about Danielle’s blog, Victoria. I hadn’t come across it before, but I’ll head over in a little while to take a look. I suspect the memoir might be Borrowed Finery, which I’m sure someone recommended to me during a Twitter conversation a while back, but I can’t for the life of me remember who mentioned it! Anyway, it sounds very good, albeit rather dark.

      I think I need to find a way of opening up some sort of wormhole to read all the books that are sitting in my TBR – if only we had more time!

      Reply
  10. Scott W

    I too confess to having never heard of Paula Fox, or of having only a vague memory of seeing one of these novels on a shelf years ago. What a fascinating piece in the Guardian (Courtney Love, a long-lost granddaughter?). And having recently seen a colleague come in with an arm swollen to grotesque proportions all due to a cat bite, I can well understand how one might build a novel around the consequences of that. That some one actually did it, though, seems quite unexpected and clever.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I know – it is a fascinating article, isn’t it? She seems to have lived quite a life. (In fact that sounds like a complete understatement when you read about her backstory.)

      I used to have a terrible fear of being bitten by a big dog. It’s silly really, but it all stems from an incident in my childhood when I was cornered by an Alsatian at a petrol station. Nothing happened, but my mother was there at the time and she freaked out. I’m much better around dogs these days, but it’s always there in the back of my mind. The way Fox uses that cat bite is very striking, and it signals the destabilisation of everything that surrounds Sophie. It’s very cleverly done. I think it’s an excellent novel, definitely end-of-year material for me.

      Reply
  11. naomifrisby

    You had me at ‘set in New York’, of course but this does sound interesting and the quotations you’ve included are some fine bits of writing. I thought I’d heard of this via a Jonathan Franzen interview and if he’s written the introduction it seems as though I might have recalled that correctly!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Haha! I’d put money on you loving this one, Naomi. The writing is top-notch, and I think you’d like the way Fox structures the story – it’s very skillfully done. Then there’s the New York setting, of course. What more can I say…

      And yes, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’d heard of this via a Jonathan Franzen interview. He’s a huge fan of her work, Desperate Characters in particular!

      Reply
  12. 1streading

    You really do seem to have a nose for these neglected American classics. I love the idea of using the mundane (the cat bite) to unsettle.
    I would also echo the recommendation of Embers above!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Paula Fox is this year’s Dorothy Baker as far as I’m concerned! You know it’s funny, I’d much rather read an American novel written between the 1920s and ’70s than anything more recent. Contemporary Amercian writers don’t hold much appeal for me these days.

      I’m glad to hear you liked Embers, too. It’s definitely moving up the pecking order in my wishlist – I’ll see if I can include it in my next round of book buying. :)

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh, I can understand that. That’s a pity about the e-book sample – Jonathan Franzen’s introduction is very good, but it’s not going to give you a feel for Fox’s style. For what it’s worth, I think the writing is excellent, but I can appreciate you wanting to experience it for yourself.

          Reply
  13. poppypeacockpens

    Oh this sounds fab… We’ve just started to watch Mad Men tonight & when a lady asked for a gimlet I thought of you & your great American picks… Do love how you provide such insightful analysis! 😊

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Poppy – it’s a terrific novel. I love this era, and Mad Men is my fave long-form TV box set. You’ve got so much to look forward to there! As for the lady with the cocktail, I guess that must have been Betty Draper (Don’s wife) – a vodka gimlet is her signature drink. :)

      Reply
  14. Caroline

    I’ve only read this and God of Nightmares but I consider her one of my favourite authors. I loved them so much. God of Nightmares even more than this one. I want to read everything she’s written but take it very slowly as there isn’t that much. (Btw – to answer your question on my blog – I didn’t review her).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m delighted to hear she’s one of your favourite authors, Caroline! God of Nightmares sounds excellent so I’ll add it to the wishlist – thanks for recommending it. I loved the writing in Desperate Characters – for a short novel it’s absolutely packed with meaning.

      Reply
  15. jools500

    Thanks for introducing me to Paula Fox. To be honest I’d never heard of her and I enjoyed reading the Guardian profile. She’s definitely an author I’m interested in reading.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, and I’m glad you like the sound of Paula Fox. Desperate Characters is definitely worth considering – I think it will make my end-of-year highlights.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I do think you’d like it, Max. The comparison with Rhys hadn’t occurred to me until Gert mentioned it, but there is a similar sense of a life unraveling here. That said, I think Desperate Characters is perhaps closer in style to Cassandra at the Wedding. The writing is very precise and controlled, just like the story’s structure/plot. I may have undersold it with that Cassandra comparison in my review, but the Fox will likely make my end-of-year list. The more I think about it, the better it gets.

      Returning to Rhys for a sec, Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s La Femme de Gilles is a little more reminiscent of her work – there’s a real intensity to the bleakness and the central character’s feeling of despair. I’d place it a little below the Fox in my pecking order, but even so, it’s an excellent novella.

      Thanks for taking the time to catch up with my reviews, Max – I really do appreciate it, especially given your recent back problems. Hope all is well now.

      Reply
  16. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  17. Pingback: My Books of the Year, 2015 – favourites from a year of reading | JacquiWine's Journal

  18. Pingback: The Widow’s Children by Paula Fox | JacquiWine's Journal

Leave a comment or reply - I'd love to hear your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s