Thursday, September 12, 2013

Desperate in Brooklyn, the Literary Borough

Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

This wicked little novel--a mordant concoction  of "Virginia Woolf," Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road, and (strangely) of William Gaddis's Carpenter's Gothic (those abrasive exchanges between Paul and Liz that nearly make you want to scream with irritation)--came my way quite by accident as I trolled my local bookstore.  Ms. Fox, ninety this year, is a remarkable writer who has alternated between producing award-winning children's books and well-regarded works of fiction for adults.  Desperate Characters is her masterpiece, regarded by many novelists and critics as one of the finest short novels ever written by an American.  Irving Howe compared Desperate Characters to "Billy Budd, The Great Gatsby, Miss Lonelyhearts, and Seize the Day." I'm not sure about Billy Budd--Sophie Bentwood, the novel's heroine, lacks Billy's ingenuousness--but Fox deftly captures the shallow American discontentment that one finds in Fitzgerald and the mutual destructiveness that often lies at the heart of Bellow's stories of love and marriage.

Like a finely-crafted Joseph Cornell box or one of those deft fictional miniatures created by Kawabata or Soseki, Desperate Characters revolves around just a few characters--the married couple Otto and Sophie Bentwood and a handful of acquaintances--and a relatively narrow slip of 1960's Brooklyn, the untidy borough as it existed before the arrival of the pioneers, the place where people threw trash out of their windows and where you had to walk many blocks to find a cup of coffee.  In fact one of Fox's deft touches is to contrast the aspirations of the neighborhood with the rapidly diminishing dreams of the Bentwoods--as though urban decay had crept into their well-appointed living room and quietly eroded what money and propriety had so tenuously created--their sham of a middle-class life.

"What the owners of the street lusted after was recognition of their superior comprehension of what counted in this world, and their strategy for getting it combined restraint and indirection."

"At night, the street had a quiet, earnest look, as though it were trying to continue to improve itself in the dark."

Otto and Sophie are well-off, childless, social but not friendly, close but not intimate.  We enter their life at dinner time--chicken livers and risotto Milanese and a nice salad--in media res, a Friday night, with a party looming that neither wishes to attend.  In the midst of what we might reasonably take to be a typical  desultory conversation, the sort of comfortable exchange that defines the banality of ordinary domestic life, Otto reveals that he has broken relations with his law partner, severed, in fact, all ties with his (ostensible) best friend; a few moments later, in attempting to feed a stray cat, Sophie is badly bitten, wounded in a way that surprises her: "Sophie winced as she felt a thrust of sharp pain. [Otto] frowned at her and she saw that he thought she hadn't liked what he had said. She'd tell him now, might as well. The incident with the cat was silly. At a distance of a half an hour, she wondered at the terror she'd felt, and the shame."  Thus, in a moment, the Bentwood's lives begin to unravel--Otto's business partner isn't going away, and Sophie's wound tears at the foundations of her unexamined life.

My in-laws grew up in Brooklyn.  My father was born in Queens and used to take me to Brooklyn Dodgers games at Ebbet's field, including that last heartbreaking season in 1956 after which Walter O'Malley moved the team to LA.  I have a program from '56 somewhere here in my study inscribed with the magical names from that summer: Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Weese, Jim 'Junior' Gilliam, Don Newcombe.  (See The Last Good Season, by Michael Shapiro).  I don't get to Brooklyn often nowadays, but when I'm there I'm on the look-out for the writers who reside in the borough rather than for ballplayers (though a ballplayer or two lives there still).  I'm not sure I'd recognize Jonathan Lethem (his photo was in the Times today and he looked more like my daughter's third-grade teacher than the oddball writer he is), but if I were in Brooklyn I wouldn't mind catching up with Ms. Fox or with one of the Great Bald Men of American writing: Mark Doty, Daniel Mendelsohn, Chad Harbach, Ben Marcus. Or running into Nicole Krauss or the irritable James Wood, or maybe Richard Price...I'm not sure all these writers live in Brooklyn, but many do, Jennifer Egan for example, who lives right there in Fort Greene on the same block as an Irish friend of mine--so many writers, both the living and the dead.

Brooklyn, then, is the literary borough. Writers everywhere, and famous people, and rich, endless life.  The best kind of place to be desperate.

Paula Fox is a New York writer, and a lot has been made of that fact. But Desperate Characters hardly feels like a New York novel--like a Paul Auster entertainment for example--Otto and Sophie might play out their marital and existential malaise in Iowa City as well as off Henry Street in Brooklyn.  Aside from a dappling of local color in the early chapters, the Bentwoods carry out their lives in the claustrophobic binary space of an unhappy marriage--a place every bit like the hell Satan carried with him.  Otto is a bigot, given to complaints about "them" dropping their trash on the street, and to sayings like, "I watched a colored man kick over a trash basket yesterday...Americans...softly dropping their turds wherever they go."  And Sophie yearns, perhaps for something other than Otto, or perhaps for something she once had but misplaced in her nice home in Brooklyn.  Fox brilliantly captures the kind of drift that makes up most lives, desperate or not.  Rabies, which Sophie may have contracted from the cat bite, her swollen hand, her troubled dealings with exiled Charlie, her confused sense of her "place," give her desperation a focus, but hardly explain it.  What is it that makes the Bentwoods so uneasy?

"[Otto] tightened his grip on [Sophie's] hip and turned her toward him, and as she sank below him on her back he saw by a faint glimmer of street light shining through the cracks in the window shutters, the dark smudges of her closed eyes. Then, with no ceremony and perversely gratified by the discomfort he was inflicting on them both, he entered her. When he withdrew, after an orgasm of an intensity he had not expected, he had the fleeting thought that his sudden impulse had had little to do with sensuality."

Nothing at all.  Cruelty, it appears, possesses a logic, and gives pleasure, unique to itself.

Desperate Characters is published by Norton. 

George Ovitt (9/12/13)

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