Monday, May 19, 2008

Desperate Characters, by Paula Fox

I'm drawn to coterie obsessions: books brought back into print after years of neglect, waiting to finally be understood by the enlightened minority. Who doesn't want to be a member of an exclusive club of admirers? And Desperate Characters is definitely an exclusive sort of book. No one I know has ever heard of it, and it is swimming in praise from notable writers, all of whom consider it an unjustly ignored classic. In the introduction, Jonathan Franzen calls it "obviously superior to any novel by Fox’s contemporaries John Updike, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow.” Obviously superior! And David Foster Wallace says that it is “a sustained work of prose so lucid and fine that it seems less written than carved.”

Well, I love a good carved book, so I picked up Desperate Characters a few weeks ago, ready to encounter a masterpiece. The novel deals with Otto and Sophie Bentwood, a wealthy and childless Brooklyn couple in their early 40s. Sophie has had two miscarriages but this doesn’t seem like one of the couple's major sorrows (neither partner expresses any particular longing for a child). Otto is a lawyer; Sophie, despite her obviously extensive education, doesn’t feel like doing most of the translating jobs she is offered, so she is largely idle.

The novel skips over Otto's life at the office, so we never see the couple engage in any productive work. Instead, we see them at home, sniping at each other – "half-consciously amassing evidence against the other," in Fox’s memorable phrase – and occasionally attending parties where people have conversations like this. Here is Sophie with her friend Mike:
“I wish I were Jewish,” she said. “Then when I died, I’d die as a Jew.”
“You’ll die as a Protestant.”
“There aren’t many left.”
“Then as a Gentile. I asked you, what’s the matter? Are you working on anything?”
“I haven’t wanted to work; it seems futile. There are so many who do it better than I do. I was sent a novel to translate but I couldn’t understand it, even in French. It simply irritated me. And I don’t have to work.”
“Tell me a little Baudelaire,” he said.
Who the hell talks like this? (She immediately proceeds to quote some Baudelaire, by the way.) Jonathan Lethem describes the dialogue as “bristling” and “hilarious.” I found it tedious and annoying. I don’t know how to locate anything like an actual human being in this kind of talk, and there is a great deal of it in the book. This exchange is close to the beginning of the novel, so I soldiered on, figuring it isn't always easy to get into an exclusive club.

There are three main engines of tension in Desperate Characters. First, Otto’s long-time law partnership is dissolving, and his former partner Charlie has been escaping with their old clients by spreading innuendos about Otto’s health and competence.

Second, Sophie gets bitten on the hand by a cat, and keeps putting off going to the doctor – at the very end, we are still waiting to hear if the cat has rabies (the two Bentwoods manage to catch the animal and get it to the ASPCA). If the cat does have rabies, Sophie will probably require a number of painful shots in her stomach.

The third engine is that the world is going to shit. Not only do the Bentwoods have a particularly unpleasant marriage, black people – yes, black people! – are taking over their neighborhood. There are drunk black people throwing up on the stoop; black people banging on the door and asking to make phone calls, black people leaving trash everywhere and generally making a mess of things.

I suspect Fox’s depictions of this de-gentrification will make many readers uncomfortable, but at least she is courageous enough not to hide behind the usual pieties. In any case, the Bentwoods are not racist; all sorts of poor people make them uncomfortable, even white ones. Here, for example, is a description of the Haynes family. The father is a caretaker for the Bentwoods' summer cottage, which has been trashed by some unknown intruders, and husband and wife have gone over to complain about the break-in:
Sitting around the kitchen table like collapsed sacks of grain were Mrs. Haynes and the three Haynes children, two boys in their late teens, and a girl a few years younger. The girl was immensely fat. From beneath a tangle of burnt-looking fairish hair, she was staring down at a copy of Life magazine, her mouth open.
Okay: I’m fine with the girl being fat, even immensely fat, and I’m fine with her reading Life magazine, but does her goddamn mouth have to be hanging open? Is this really necessary? I’m offended on artistic grounds, not moral ones, because this description is so entirely predictable. There is no longer any way that the Haynes family is going to surprise me: they have been summed up, and the rest of the pages in which they appear are entirely dead, because the author is only capable of hitting the same "white trash" button.

Luckily there is not a great deal of this; we spend most of our time with rich white people who read their Baudelaire with mouths firmly shut. Sophie visits a few more friends, they discuss Freud and eat potage fontange; all the while, her hand keeps swelling from the cat bite, and she puts off going to the doctor, convincing herself that it’s too small a matter to bother with. Otto is more and more stressed at work, and Charlie, his partner, stops by one night to talk with him and instead ends up taking a walk with Sophie, who doesn’t want to wake up her husband. In a scene that is utterly unconvincing, she confesses to Charlie that she had an affair recently and then hastily takes it back.

Two chapters later, we get the story of the affair, and it is the only part of the book that justified some of the extravagant praise. Francis Early, the other man, is genuinely fascinating, and there is real emotional intensity in this section instead of the haze of inexplicable nastiness that hangs over the rest of the novel. But this chapter soon ends, and we return to more pages of bitter spats, visits to friends, and anxiety about the breakdown of society. Along the way, we are treated to many passages of fine writing. Here is Sophie finally going to the hospital:
At the hospital information desk, a powdery old clerk told them to go back to the street and walk around to the emergency-room entrance a block away. There was no access from here, she said. She had the spurious helpfulness of an airline stewardess. Her smile did not conceal from Sophie her judgment: emergency cases belonged to a low social order in the hierarchy of disease. They left the reception room quickly, both of them unpleasantly aware of the special claustrophobic warmth that seems to be the natural climate of illness.
For a passage like this to be impressive, it has to be read very quickly, without thinking about whether any of what it contains is actually true. These are cocktail party aperçus; they only sound intelligent for a moment. Why exactly is the helpfulness of airline stewardesses spurious? And since when are emergency cases low on the hierarchy of disease? As for prose that Wallace says can be carved somewhere, just look at how many words are either confusing ("powdery"?) or entirely unnecessary. What does the word "special" add to "claustrophobic warmth"? Is "did not conceal from Sophie" all that different from the single word "revealed"?

This quote is entirely representative. For a book that is only 150 pages long, and has been described by several reviewers as perfect, the prose is continuously padded with needless distinctions. Thinking about a man she was drawn to, Sophie remembers "the way he'd nudge things with the unself-conscious and sober curiosity of a child or an especially alert animal." Such details should build to something, but there is never any sense of accretion in this book because its specificity is not actually useful. What is lost if it's just a run-of-the-mill alert animal, for example? Are we really getting closer to the truth by designating only the most alert of animals? And there are hundreds of sentences like this - it's like an aesthete swirling a mouthful of wine and trying to discover more and more obscure flavors. A substantial intelligence is deployed, but by an author that wants us to admire her penetration more than the content of her thought, which is consistently trivial and not nearly as subtle as it pretends to be.

I am honestly puzzled by the acclaim this book has received. What exactly is the insight that all of these writers are getting from Desperate Characters? There is certainly little pleasure to be had. Anyway, I will happily bow out of membership in this particular club. I don't have the money, in any case.


MRR said...

I'm guessing you've never lived in any major U.S. city (like New York) long enough to be mugged or attacked. Nor have you had to wait in a waiting room for a very long time. This happened to be recently, and I find Fox's descriptions now to be very apt, and these characters to be incredibly sympathetic.

Great descriptions don't necessarily have to build to anything (as you so stipulate). They can be incredibly reassuring just fine on their own.

I don't understand either why you think that "of a child or an animal" would be just as good of a description as "of a child or an especially alert animal." The later , Fox's version, by any standard I think, is much more acute. Anyway, it brings me infinitely more joy. Same goes for "powdery," and most of the other descriptions you didn't like.

Also, their neighborhood isn't de-gentrifying. It's gentrifying. Get it straight. Go see "The Landlord," a great movie.

Anyway, nice review. Sorry I disagreed with most of what you said. I'd read The Widow's Children next. It's my second favorite.

Akshay Ahuja said...

A few thoughts. About the description that you quote, if you look over my review I'll think you'll see that I don't suggest that every adjective be removed. Also, I think that any book whose appreciation requires that its readers be mugged or attacked is in pretty bad shape. A novel, if it's any good, has to be convincing to all sorts of people - assuming they are reasonably bright and attentive readers - and not just the few who possess those qualities and have also had certain experiences in a handful of major American cities.