title: Desperate Characters [support an independent bookseller and purchase at Strand]
author: Paula Fox
genre: literary fiction
source: New York Public Library
“Monday had always been a terrible trouble–once she had tried to stay awake all Sunday night to forestall her mother’s grim and unforgiving presence in her doorway–but she had fallen asleep just before dawn, to be awakened two hours later by her mother clapping her hands relentlessly over the bed, her face shining from her morning scrub, dressed in a starched house dress, saying over and over, “Early risers are the winners.” It had been thirty years since Sophie had been roused by that derisive applause; she had not yet discovered the nature of the prize her mother’s words had once led her to believe existed. Perhaps winning had simply meant the tyranny of waking others.” (p. 147)
Some authors are amazing at creating a compelling story. Others, at creating compelling, realistically-rendered characters. Few are adept at both. Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters places her firmly in the character-development camp, and inhabits a place in the spectrum somewhere between Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, a novel that is super character-driven but where a ton happens, and Teju Cole’s Open City, which is almost entirely character-driven and very little happens.
As I read this book, the opening line from Anna Karenina kept popping into my head (“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”). Jonathan Franzen loves Desperate Characters, and its influence on his writing is obvious. Franzen is the patron saint of unhappy-middle-class-white-families, and often his characters are so intricately and realistically rendered that they’re often polarizingly (I like to turn things into adverbs) unlikable. In fact, I know of more people who stopped reading The Corrections because they hated everyone in it, than I know people who finished it. All of Fox’s characters that make up Desperate Characters‘ unhappy-middle-class-white-family are fairly self-involved, which, at least for me, created enough space that I found it hard to empathize with them. Usually, self-absorbed characters can be a turn off for me, but Fox’s skill was so evident that, for once, surprisingly, it didn’t matter.
The story follows Sophie and Otto, a middle-aged married couple, who are each unhappy in their own way. I would argue that it’s not that they’re unhappily married; it’s that they’re unhappy, and also married. Their unhappiness seems to go beyond how they feel about the other. In the first few pages of the story, Sophie, the main character, is bit by a stray cat. The entirety of the action takes place over the course of several days, during which the bite swells and everyone and their mother tries to persuade her to get it checked out by a doctor, an idea Sophie staunchly resists. At the same time, Otto, a lawyer, has parted ways with his longtime legal partner, Charlie, and Charlie isn’t taking the separation well (i.e. he gets drunk. And makes creepy phone calls). For such a short span of time and only 156 pages, a lot happens. Otto and Sophie attend a party. Charlie gets bombed and shows up on their doorstep in the middle of the night. Sophie has lunch with an old friend who has one of the most dysfunctional, codependent divorce situations I’ve ever encountered in literature. They catch the stray cat. No one gets much sleep.
As I mentioned, I struggled to like both Sophie and Otto. Sophie, through her persistent passivity, seems to be her own worst enemy. Otto is all opinions all the time, though he doesn’t come across as the most reflective person. But even for their unattractive qualities, both were wholly presented and developed over the course of the narrative; even if I didn’t like them per se, I still found them compelling. I wanted to see what happened to them next, not because I cared about them, but because I wanted to follow Fox where she was going. I can see why Franzen returns to this piece again and again.
Also, in terms of craft, Fox is a technically astounding:
“Sophie stood motionless in the hall. 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.” (p. 47)
I mean, damn. What an image!
Rubric rating: 7.5. Strong. I’ll definitely pick up more by Fox in the future.