Monday, May 16, 2011

Desperate Characters

At the beginning of this semester I got talking with the students in my American Literature class about the notion of the Great American Novel. While we were talking I mentioned that Jonathan Franzen — whose most recent novel Freedom had been seriously put forward (and in other quarters seriously disdained) as a contemporary candidate for TGAN. That discussion led me to find and re-read Franzen’s iconic 1996 essay “Perchance to Dream,” in which he tried to respond to those critics who were of the opinion that the novel as a form is outdated and outmoded, socially irrelevant at best and an instrument of hegemonistic exploitation at worst.

What I had not remembered about that essay was the degree to which it focused on another novel, Desperate Characters, by Paula Fox, which Franzen praises at one point as “a perfectly realized book.”

So I tracked down a copy of Desperate Characters, and read through it in three or four great gulps (unlike Franzen’s tomes, which can double as doorstops, it’s only 156 pages). I’d have to agree with Franzen’s assessment: there’s scarcely a paragraph in the book that you might not choose to highlight for one reason or another, depending on what you were choosing to attend to.

The opening paragraphs of the book are, for example, a little mini-workshop in artful compression:

Mr. and Mrs. Otto Bentwood drew out their chairs simultaneously. As he sat down, Otto regarded the straw basket which held slices of French bread, an earthenware casserole filled with sautéed chicken livers, peeled and sliced tomatoes on an oval willowware platter Sophie had found in a Brooklyn Heights antique shop, and risotto Milanese in a green ceramic bowl. A strong light somewhat softened by the stained glass of a Tiffany shade, fell upon this repast. A few feet away from the dining room table, an oblong of white, the reflection from a fluorescent tube over a stainless-steel sink, lay upon the floor in front of the entrance to the kitchen. The old sliding doors that had once separated the two first-floor rooms had long since been removed, so that by turning slightly the Bentwoods could glance down the length of their living room where, at this hour, a standing lamp with a shade like half a white sphere was always lit, and they could, if they chose, view the old cedar planks of the floor, a bookcase which held, among other volumes, the complete works of Goethe and two shelves of French poets, and the highly polished corner of a Victorian secretary.

Otto unfolded a large linen napkin with deliberation.

“The cat is back,” said Sophie. (3)

The procession of details in the opening paragraph quickly establish the texture and tonality of the domestic world that the Bentwoods have created for themselves. French bread, casserole, willowware, Tiffany shade, cedar flooring, the bookshelves, the Victorian secretary: the Bentwoods live in a certain sort of world defined by what they eat, what they buy, what they surround themselves with.

The next two sentences are like a good one-two combination in the ring. “Otto unfolded a large linen napkin with deliberation.” Think of all the overtones and undertones of that word, “deliberation.” It suggests equanimity, self-satisfaction, thoughtfulness, attentiveness, patience, centeredness. “The cat is back,” is jarring, and not just because of the starkness of the monosyllables and the harsh assonance in the context of all the baroque ornamentation that has gone before. It’s suggestive of that which is NOT contained in the Bentwood’s little bubble, that which is wild, feral, un-domestic and undomesticated. In very short order the cat, in response to Sophie Bentwood’s good-intentioned ministrations, has sunk its fangs into her hand, and that jarring experience becomes the first of a series of events over the next few days that call everything that the Bentwoods have come to believe about themselves into question.

Re-reading Desperate Characters, I was all the more aware of the grim satire behind the elements chosen for inclusion in the first paragraph. On first reading, you may sense, subliminally or intuitively, that something is up. On second reading, you see how virtually every word is charged with intention, and freighted, if not exactly with malice, perhaps with a kind of unyieldingness. Joan Acocella closes a recent essay review about Fox in the New Yorker by quoting Darryl Pinckney to the effect that Fox is “sometimes hard to the point of cold.” Acocella's article establishes that Fox's steely-eyed attentiveness was hard-earned. Desperate Characters is not a comforting read, but it certainly is a beautifully realized novel.

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