What are the perfect American novels? The first two-thirds of "Huckleberry Finn"? "The Great Gatsby"? "The Catcher in the Rye"? Whatever your list, I suggest you add "Desperate Characters" to it. Paula Fox is quite simply a wonderful writer. This novel stands in marked contrast to the one I discussed previously, "Three Stages of Amazement." Both are character driven and deal with marriage and a particular (upper middle) social class at a critical time in American history, the late 'sixties in the case of "Desperate Characters." But "Characters" is so much the superior novel it's hard to believe that Fox was out-of-print and long-forgotten until Jonathan Franzen "rediscovered" her in 1999. I'm not sure I'd say she's better than Updike, as Franzen does, but she certainly belongs in his company and is a near contemporary.
Sophie and Otto Bentwood are a forty-something, professional couple who are part of the wave of gentrification in Brooklyn when New York is at its lowest ebb. A flasher lives across the street, drunks stagger around the neighborhood, and garbage is everywhere, but the Bentwoods have made a cozy nest in their old brownstone and filled it with a library of great books, a Tiffany lamp, and "risotto Milanese in a green ceramic bowl." The first paragraph, which Franzen in his introduction finds slightly regrettable, is in fact a perfect listing of just the sort of things a successful, well-educated couple would have around them. A few objects--a bowl, a lamp, "the old cedar planks of the floor," a stainless-steel sink--tell you everything you need to know to place them. Even their names have weight: Sophie (wisdom) confronts Otto (Germanic control) over the course of a single weekend, and like one of those origami flowers that opens magically in water, a crisis slowly develops and a turning point is reached. This is not to say that the ending provides "closure." This is the first novel by Fox I've read, but I don't believe she ever provides her readers with closure. The ending is exactly right and totally ambiguous. The Bentwoods--and the reader--are left not with resolution but with an indeterminate future.
Franzen has read this novel many times and has taught it, and he says he finds new things every time he picks it up. This is a novel I will want to read again (there aren't all that many). Now that I have the simple plot firmly in place, I will be able to look more closely at the brushwork, as it were. I cannot wait to read another Fox novel, and I haven't even mentioned how interesting Fox's own life has been. She is Clement Greenberg's sister-in-law for one thing. She taught at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in all sorts of places. Best of all, she possesses a rare brand of wisdom, unflinching, realistic, enduring.