This essay is part of T’s Book Club, a series of articles and events dedicated to classic works of American literature. Click here to R.S.V.P. to a virtual conversation about “Desperate Characters,” to be led by Sigrid Nunez and held on Aug. 4.
IN THE WINTER of 1991, I was a resident for a month at Yaddo, the artists’ retreat in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. On the second floor of one of the buildings on the property was a small library, which was also where, at that time, artists in residence during the winter season took their meals. One day, I happened to see on a shelf a novel called “Desperate Characters” by Paula Fox. Though the title was new to me, the author was not. Some years earlier, I had read another book by Paula Fox, a children’s novel called “One-Eyed Cat.” Published in 1984, it had been assigned to me as part of my freelance work for an agency called Triad Artists, assessing books for possible movie deals. I loved the novel, a beautifully written story set in the mid-1930s in upstate New York, whose main character, 11-year-old Ned Wallis, is tormented by the fear that an air rifle shot he took at a shadow in the moonlight may have put out the eye of a feral cat. His guilt is compounded by the fact that his father, a Congregational Church minister, had forbidden him to use the rifle — a birthday gift from Ned’s uncle — until Ned is older. Now he lives in secret shame, unable to confess and trapped in a series of lies he tells to hide what has happened from his parents.
My enjoyment of “One-Eyed Cat” made me want to read “Desperate Characters,” Fox’s second novel for adults, published in 1970, and one in which a cat also happens to play a significant role. In this case, though, it is the cat that causes the injury by literally biting the hand that feeds it — the hand of a woman, the novel’s main character, Sophie Bentwood. This incident occurs right at the beginning of the book and, as we read on, we are kept in suspense as to how serious the bite is, whether the cat — a stray — might be rabid and why Sophie, an intelligent and educated woman, would rather deny the problem, even as her hand swells and throbs, than seek medical advice. Another source of suspense has to do with whether or not an extramarital affair she once had will come to light.
Sophie is a literary translator (though at the moment she finds herself unable to summon any enthusiasm for her work) and the wife of a lawyer named Otto. Middle-aged and childless, the Bentwoods live in an area of Brooklyn that, while gentrifying (the period is the late 1960s), remains surrounded by “slum people.” From their quiet, handsomely furnished townhouse, they can hear disturbing noises, such as the cries of a mistreated dog. They can see piles of garbage and even more sordid sights, including, once, a half-naked drunk sprawled in the street. The Bentwoods own a Mercedes-Benz and a second home on Long Island. When, hoping for a respite from urban disorder, they decide to drive there, they find that the house has been broken into and many of their possessions have been destroyed. So much for escape. Tellingly, it seems, nothing was stolen: the intruders’ only goal had been vandalism.
Although it received good reviews when it first appeared, “Desperate Characters” failed to sell. Fox’s previous adult novel, “Poor George” (1967), had met a similar fate, and all together the six adult novels she published sold so modestly that, by 1992, every one of them had gone out of print. Fox continued to write children’s books, however (she would publish more than 20 in her lifetime), and, in addition to being a reliable source of income, that writing brought her several accolades, among them a 1974 Newbery Medal, and, in 1978, for her body of work, the highest international honor given for children’s literature: the Hans Christian Andersen Award.
One of my fellow residents at Yaddo in 1991 was the novelist Jonathan Franzen, who was finishing up work on his second book, “Strong Motion” (1992). When at breakfast one morning he mentioned that he was looking for something to read, I recommended “Desperate Characters.” As he would write in an essay published in Harper’s in 1996, it produced an effect so profound in him that it felt like “an instance of religious grace.” A few years later, the writer and editor Tom Bissell, who’d read Franzen’s essay and Fox’s novel and who was working at the publishing house W. W. Norton, succeeded in getting “Desperate Characters” reissued. In an introduction to the new edition, which came out from Norton in 1999, Franzen pronounced the book not just “inarguably great” but “obviously superior to any novel by Fox’s contemporaries John Updike, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow.” Another novelist, Thomas Mallon, called this claim “almost more embarrassing than the neglect it sought to remedy,” but added “if this is what it took to give Fox’s oeuvre a commercial pulse, one finds the zeal pardonable enough.”
That commercial pulse quickened: Over the next few years Norton brought each of Fox’s other adult novels back into print. And so, for the last 18 years of her life (she died, aged 93, in 2017), she had the satisfaction of seeing her long-overlooked work reach a wide and appreciative audience. In response to this turn of events she said, “I’m surprised, but I’m not surprised. … It’s not that I thought so well of my books, it’s that in some way I think so well and highly of truth, and I know that my novels have a tiny bit of truth in them. Truth: That’s what I care about.”
A not so tiny bit of truth that Fox is clearly after in “Desperate Characters” can be found in these famous words from Henry David Thoreau’s book “Walden” (1854), which are alluded to in the novel’s penultimate chapter: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.” On the surface, the Bentwoods might seem resigned to the fact that now and then unpleasant things may disrupt their privileged, well-ordered existence and sustained by the belief that they have the means — not just their wealth and cultivated tastes but the right middle-class moral values — to prevail. But over the course of one long weekend, we see what deep uncertainty and frustration roil just beneath.
“Ticking away inside the carapace of ordinary life and its sketchy agreements was anarchy,” Sophie at one point reflects. One of the “sketchy agreements” referred to here is marriage. Husband and wife frequently flare up at each other, but the trouble is always quickly smoothed over. They carry on, seeing themselves grow more and more estranged from each other yet helpless to stop it. For Fox, this kind of estrangement is a common aspect of domestic life, and how unknowable we remain to one another, even in our intimate relationships, is an inescapable part of the human condition.
THE BENTWOODS’ BEHAVIOR can sometimes strike us as irrational: For example, Sophie’s simultaneous dread and denial about the possibly serious consequences of the cat bite, and Otto’s nearly unhinged response to the breakup of his longtime friendship and law partnership with a man named Charlie Russel. Charlie himself is as desperate as anyone. Unlike the archconservative Otto, who has nothing but contempt for the social and cultural movements of the ’60s, Charlie yearns to be a part of them — a woke lawyer “defending the unlovely and unloved,” in Otto’s jeering phrase — but he comes across as muddled, weak and histrionic. “I care about everything,” he tells Sophie, giggling. “In my desperate fashion. It’s desperation that keeps me going.”
Though Fox’s attitude toward her characters has an element of compassion, she does not spare them. She is a realist, well aware that people rarely escape having to live with the mistakes they have made. A poignant scene reveals Sophie forced to face the truth about her secret affair with Francis Early, a client of Otto’s with whom the Bentwoods became friends, and who ended up rejecting her: “Yet, for a bitter moment, she was caught up in the old tormenting question: What if Francis had been available? If the door had swung open, would she have gone through it? She glanced over at Otto. Francis had not only deprived her of himself. He had cheated her of her certainty about Otto.”
Perhaps the strangest moment in “Desperate Characters” — a work that abounds in strange moments, which is one of the things that makes it so compelling — occurs near the end, when Sophie lashes out at an old friend with such gratuitous cruelty that the reader immediately thinks back to that horrid cat sinking teeth and claws into Sophie’s flesh unprovoked. Up till this point, we have seen Sophie as flawed but mostly sympathetic — certainly never vicious — and this glimpse into her dark depths is chilling. This scene is soon followed by the spectacle of Otto, in a final outburst of rage against Charlie, who has telephoned in “desperate” need of speaking with him, smashing a bottle of ink against the Bentwoods’ bedroom wall. Behold the couple, making their own nasty little contributions to the coarseness and destructiveness they’ve been lamenting ever since we met them. Fox makes this bizarre and violent culmination feel entirely inevitable. In what is probably the novel’s most often cited line, Sophie thinks out loud: “God, if I am rabid, I am equal to what is outside.” And grim though it may be, the clarity of this epiphany, which comes in the midst of so much bewildering uncertainty, gives her “an extraordinary relief.” (As I said: strange.)
Discussing her approach to writing about people, Fox once said: “I think it’s not helpful to overpsychologize. It substitutes for the chaos that most of us live in. … And that’s what I’ve been writing about, that chaos.” One of “Desperate Characters”’ most admired qualities is Fox’s ability to write about that chaos in such unfailingly controlled, elegant and lucid prose.
In the era of Covid-19, it is especially unsettling to read a narrative driven by dread of a deadly infection. And what a shudder of recognition this image of Sophie brings: “‘What’s going to happen?’ she burst out. ‘Everything is going to hell—’” Oh, don’t we know all about it: the anarchy ticking away, threatening at any moment to be explosively loosed upon the world. “Rabid” strikes me as a good way to describe how “what is outside” can feel to us today: the race and class conflicts, the polarized rage, the fear that at any moment we or a loved one could be the victim of some violent act. The center not holding, the thin veneer of civilization and how little it takes to fall through — how often, lately, do we come across these sentiments? Resonant, too, is the book’s sharp analysis of gentrification: the inequality and social segregation and displacement of the have-nots that are among its consequences, as well as the hapless flailing of the displacing haves over what position to take in regard to this harsh reality.
A root of Fox’s obsessions with disorder and incomprehensible human behavior was revealed in 2001, when she published “Borrowed Finery,” a memoir distinguished both for its enthralling portrait of an unusually chaotic childhood and an utter absence of self-pity. An inconvenience to her selfish parents, Fox was dumped in a Manhattan foundling home right after her birth in 1923. Growing up, between occasional visits with her parents, which went very badly, she was handed off to various friends, relatives and sometimes strangers. But in one way, her parents’ brutal negligence was also a stroke of luck, for it brought Fox, from the age of 5 months to 6 years, into the care of a man named Elwood Corning. Like the good, loving father in “One-Eyed Cat,” for whom he was obviously a model, Corning was a Congregational minister who lived in a hamlet in upstate New York. “He was so good to me,” Fox recalled, and she loved him dearly. Among other kindnesses, Uncle Elwood taught her how to read, and I have no doubt that spending those critical early years under his wing and away from her hostile, unstable mother saved Fox from what the psychiatrist Leonard Shengold called soul murder: the common fate of people traumatized as children by abusive and neglectful parents.
Fox once spoke to an interviewer about “the strength of life” of the injured cat in “One-Eyed Cat,” which she called “the heart of that book,” and how much it meant to her. Her stories for young readers are often ones of resilience, showing lonely or uncared-for children struggling to make their way in a baffling and at times treacherous world. Many of these children are outsiders, and Fox always saw herself as someone with an outsider’s point of view. She was also exceptionally resilient and persistent, continuing to write, which she first began doing as a child, despite much disappointment and rejection. It is this grit that wins my greatest admiration. Without it, Fox’s strange, beautiful, truth-telling work would not exist.
Sigrid Nunez is the author of nine books, including “The Friend,” winner of the 2018 National Book Award for fiction, and, most recently, “What Are You Going Through” (2020).