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Paula Fox – Desperate Characters

I was fortunate enough to interview Paula Fox a few weeks ago for The Rumpus (it should be out in a few weeks or so). I just re-read her most acclaimed novel Desperate Characters, written in 1970. It moved me yet again. The beginning is simple. A childless couple live in a Brooklyn brownstone and the woman, Sophie, pets a stray in their backyard as her husband Otto sits in the living room.

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.

From this the couple is caught in a state of anxiety as Sophie’s hand swells, but she doesn’t take care of it right away. They go to a party and later as the host examines the bite upstairs with Sophie, a rock is thrown through his window. It is 1969 or thereabouts. The war is raging on, the neighborhood is falling apart. Otto, a bitter lawyer, has just broken up with his partner. Leaving the house one evening, Fox describes him as being, “…drawn toward [his home]. He yearned to throw open the door he had only just locked, to catch the house empty. It was, he thought, a little like the wish to be sentient at one’s own funeral.”

The language, the characters, the story – they are all pitch perfect and at 156 pages the novel is very digestible to the modern preference towards compression. Also read The Widow’s Children or anyone of her other novels. There are twenty some books for children and young adults too, including The Slave Dancer. As well, two memoirs, Borrowed Finery and The Coldest Winter.

Here is a wonderful clip of her being interviewed by Italian TV. The story at the end is heartbreaking.

12 thoughts on “Paula Fox – Desperate Characters

  1. I love Paula Fox – it’s been a while since I’ve read her, so nice to be reminded. Thanks!

    Sorry to ramble… I might argue with your assertion that contemporary (even though ‘modern’ means what you intend here, I pause in literary discussions because ‘modern’ has such specialized meaning re Modernism) audiences prefer short, or compressed, texts – compressed means to press together to take up less space – to me that implies a text whose length has been shortened intentionally – like a text that was intended to be longer, but was intentionally shortened – condensed, even – I don’t think Fox falls into this category – maybe compressed in the sense of dense, in that she does in 156 pages what might normally take 190 (or something like that – just trying to figure out compressed RE a text from what I know about compression in music, or compression in digital storage, etc. – don’t mean to pick apart your words, but I think this is an interesting idea.)

    But even short texts – maybe literary authors are only reading short texts now? Readers in general seem to be fine with big books (Da Vince Code, Harry Potter) – do contemporary literary readers prefer shorter books? This might be the case, but I think it’s really interesting, that readers who (I would guess) prefer more challenging work are actually going after quicker reads than readers of popular or mass-market fiction.

    I didn’t watch the interview yet, so not sure if this bit of trivia is covered, but Fox is Courtney Love’s grandmother.

    1. Hi Matt,

      I thought that might be a smoking gun line, but I left it in. I want to entice people to read the book.

      I guess I’m writing to an audience that is not only reading bestsellers. An the audience today seems to be leaning more toward shorter texts and this is seen in what is published. There just are alot of 400-700 page novels like there used to be. We have the internet and attention spans and the renewed interest in flash fiction.

      WSJ: Does this issue of length apply to books, too? Is a 1,000-page book somehow too much?

      CM: For modern readers, yeah. People apparently only read mystery stories of any length. With mysteries, the longer the better and people will read any damn thing. But the indulgent, 800-page books that were written a hundred years ago are just not going to be written anymore and people need to get used to that. If you think you’re going to write something like “The Brothers Karamazov” or “Moby-Dick,” go ahead. Nobody will read it. I don’t care how good it is, or how smart the readers are. Their intentions, their brains are different.

      Maybe we should let go of the word compression (probably the wrong word choice on my part. I would still maintain that what Fox does is distill things. It seems to me there is not an extraneous detail in the book. While some books accumulate (Tree of Smoke and the big Roth books), her book keeps a pace and while touching our minds, it sheds as it races along, like a long-distance runner. Big books and I love them, have a different power. Desperate Characters and Munro, Evenson, A Sport and a Pastime – I think they are doing something much different, they continue the roar without a lull.

      And probably a shorter work is challenging in it’s own way. I still know a handful of people who won’t even read something under 200 pages. They want to be taken on a journey. They want to live with something for a few weeks. I can understand that to a degree. It really is interesting about tastes in reading.

      Courtney is not covered in the interview and I didn’t bring her up in mine, but there are many interesting things about Paula Fox, she’s a treasure.

      1. Hey Greg,

        I think the McCarthy quote above is wrongheaded for a number of reasons. First of all, he equates, or rather conflates, long length with “indulgent.” Why does he make that assumption? Are all longer books indulgent? Yes, there are indulgent longer books, but surely it isn’t exclusively the domain of longer books. I’m sure we could all make lists of works that are indulgent, regardless of their length. Also, what’s wrong with an indulgent work anyway? Does he mean self-indulgent? Should the self not be indulged. If so, then why? Well, to answer that we have to know how McCarthy defines that word. It seems that he is responding to (imagined or otherwise) dictates of the mainstream market. Perhaps he’s also bolstered by the success of his easier to digest later works.

        And, wow, we just need to get used to the idea that books like “The Brothers Karamazov” or “Moby-Dick,” are “just not going to be written anymore”? This is stupid idea. And who is this “we” he’s talking about. That’s like thinking that since the music that is most popular (that is, making the most money) is largely disposable ditties that “we” just have to get used to the idea that works like Bitches Brew, Dark Magus, Agharta and Pangaea just aren’t going to be made anymore.

        These are ideas I won’t accept.

        And then, he goes way out on a limb to state that readers’ “intentions, their brains are different.” What are those intentions anyway? How are the intentions of readers different than the original readers of those classic books. How are their “brains different”? Is he suggesting some kind of devolution of the brain?

        I think I preferred it when McCarthy didn’t want to talk to the media.

        1. Hey John,

          It is a knee-jerk that’s for sure. And the success means that he can say what he wants. Of course he’s not God. I’ll try to play Cormac’s advocate. I think he might mean that if someone can say something in fewer words, why not? Just because something is long doesn’t mean it’s any greater or more challenging whether it be TREE OF SMOKE or THE GODFATHER PART III.

          I think there is something to be said for concision. Our culture is obsessed with saving time and I think this has leaked into our art. That’s no excuse, but it’s there. I don’t know if the self should be indulged, do you? It seems we do too much of that. Our music, our ipod, etc. But I can’t say that people shouldn’t write to their hearts delight. The author will hopefully know when they are getting indulgent.

          I agree he should have gotten into more of the specifics of the brain thing, especially him, this emiritus at the Sante Fe institute. But that’s the Wall Street Journal for you. No follow up. I do agree, but I don’t have a scientific background to back me up. Just my own experience which says, since the internet and doing more internet things, my attention span has shrunken and I don’t like it, but it’s a Catch 22. This is my community. Deep down I know I don’t have the attention span to finish Infinite Jest or 2666, so I won’t even start them because I’d rather do it all the way than half-assed. It sucks, but there it is. I don’t trust my attention span.

          McCarthy has probably gotten too popular. I think Adam is right in some respects. Though I can’t blame him too much. He was in obscurity for nearly thirty years.

          1. Hey Greg,

            I don’t think that McCarthy is saying “that if someone can say something in fewer words, why not? Just because something is long doesn’t mean it’s any greater or more challenging whether it be TREE OF SMOKE or THE GODFATHER PART III.” What he is saying is that shorter works are superior to longer works because they are not indulgent and because they are responsive to contemporary readers’ need for speed. This is utter nonsense.

            I’m sorry to hear that you think your attention span has shrunken because of the internet. But is that also true of all or most readers? I hope not, and I doubt it.

            But even if it were true, why should I care?

            I read plenty of shorter works and longer works. Right now I’m in the middle of reading the Collected Wallace Stevens. It is over a thousand pages long. I’m reading each book in it, twice. And I’m reading the notes.

            I’m online a lot, too. I’m just not addicted to that rush.

            1. Hi John,

              Fair enough. Though I don’t think the internet increases our attention span. People are different.

              Now to get back to Paula Fox. Have you read the Widow’s Children? The one I gave you.



  2. Very nifty novel, pared-to-the-bone prose, and cool you got to interview her. I want to put in a word also for another of her books, The Widow’s Children. Also the memoirs! OK, I’m just a foxfan…

  3. I just grabbed this book at a local bookstore today. I had never heard of it, but thought the summary looked interesting. Glad to hear you liked it as well – I’m excited to get into it.

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