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The Book Club Spy: Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

Paula Fox’s tense novel, set in New York in the early 1970s was out of print between 1992 and 2003; Fox being more prominently known as a writer of children’s books. How much of the book’s appearance on our hit list had to do with the fact that the introduction to the rediscovered edition was by Jonathan Franzen, her most vocal supporter, has not yet been determined. Fox’s life story is almost soap like in its tragedy, with very little spilling over into her fiction – the only watermark left by her foundling beginnings and giving up her own daughter for existence is really what she does not write about – children. This may be reaching, or an example to illustrate the point made in an old Guardian review in Fox’s style: “the impression is of distanced, though not unfeeling, control”.

In the act of keeping within these personal bonds of formality, her characters remain nebulous and unfixed. There is democracy in this lottery of impact, Sarah Churchwell wrote for the TLS that “even the most minor characters can suddenly offer crucial insight, and unsympathetic characters are often the most fascinating: brilliant, unfathomable and raging”. The downside to this is that you end up liking anyone very much – Otto and Sophie, the stars, are a vilely complacent couple with no sense of humour, for starters. There is a moment when the partner of Otto’s law firm, Charlie, looks like he might shape up into a juicy baddie, but then he never really loses his temper properly – the worst thing he can be accused of is taking Sophie for a drink at an inappropriate time of night – but there is no whiff of danger surrounding him. Franzen found him self-righteous – the law firm splits Otto and Charlie have differing views on which clients to represent, the latter vouching for a group described by the former as ‘black sharecroppers’.

Despite the roiling context for the novel’s setting, civil rights actually makes the tiniest of impingements upon the story, perhaps rather like it would have been for white middle class people who – in a blinkered, I’ve just got to buy an omelette pan way – weren’t following events avidly in New York at the time. This is, as an aside, rather well captured in some character arcs of Mad Men, and indeed reflected in the novel’s main event of Sophie being bitten on her hand by a stray cat she has been feeding. This metaphor of biting the feeding hand out of ingratitude is actually quite an effective device for illustrating how grating a picture it is: a complacent, comfortable couple moving into an up and coming part of Brooklyn before it is gentrified, and then shuddering at the lack of welcoming civility they feel they deserve for being so ahead of the game. Brooklyn is “an embattled slum, with pockets of aggressive gentrification”, and the couple even have a second home is in the country, in the non-Hamptons, so far so clever. But there is a price to pay for this forward thinking: the farmhouse (Otto also bought the barn, as a noisy party was once held there) is vandalized, and the caretakers don’t seem that bothered when our heroes raise the alarm in a panic.

In this way the novel is made up of a series of minor threats (the spectre of rabies from the cat bite is apparently the main spur of Sophie’s narrative drive) leading to a non-resolution – Otto and Sophie’s marriage remains intact and indolent despite an episode of laconic infidelity and one of marital rape. There is plenty of sinister material here, tightly crafted, but in making the conscious decision to simply reject any pretence to illusion in her writing, Fox creates a horde of people apparently ‘drearily enslaved by introspection’.

It was this concept that pricked up the ears of Book Club’s President, I must confess to having found it more limiting, true self-knowledge or at the least an honest appraisal of one’s inner life on occasion with reference to others verging on the necessary. Our President then went on to ask the room at large: ‘What was that Beckett we saw where there was an ogre in a bucket?’ A colourful, if confused, exchange ensued: the answer was Endgame, the point being to highlight the dynamic between a divorced couple Sophie visits at one point in the narrative. The two meet up for meals most days, and their willingness to exchange, spar, and honestly assess each other’s strengths and weaknesses without an agenda is one of the more interesting.

Sadly, the consensus on Desperate Characters was not a favourable one. The good news is that Fox was tracked down by her daughter in her seventies, and that sales of Endgame soared immediately after the meeting was adjourned.

The Editors

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