I came across Desperate Characters, Paula Fox’s spare but loaded 1970 novel, as a result of the frequent recommendation from the eminent Jonathan Franzen. In fact, in his introduction in the 1999 Norton edition of Desperate Characters, Franzen comes across not only as an insightful academic, but a rabid (yes, rabid!) Fox fan as well. While Franzen has his reasons for loving this book, I found myself appreciating it for its great ability to efficiently communicate the precarious nature of happiness in the average person.
Otto and Sophie Bentwood are prototypical upper middle-class Americans. Childless, they live in a fashionable brownstone in a newly gentrified section of Brooklyn, drive a Mercedes, and spend their Friday nights drinking cocktails at the abodes of their fellow forty-somethings. Despite their comfortable lifestyle and perceived professional success, something is missing in the lives of the Bentwoods; yet at the beginning of the novel, as they bicker about various trifles, they are frustratingly unable to communicate it. Then, after Sophie is bitten by a stray cat while generously trying to feed it, a series of everyday disasters occurs, forcing the couple to finally confront the unhappiness and anxiety that plagues them.
Though Desperate Characters suffered a few years out of print, possibly the main reason for the novel’s resurgence is its wonderfully executed realist style. As I read this novel, the tension in the Bentwoods’ lives was palpable. At times, especially during Otto and Sophie’s many arguments, I felt anxiety at the knowledge that at any time one of them would snap. However, the non-Otto/Sophie interactions offer no respite from this tension. When Sophie interacts with Charlie Russel, Otto’s emotional former business partner, or slips into a memory of her affair with the confused Francis Early, the reader never ceases to sense the breakdown on the horizon.
Especially remarkable about Desperate Characters is its concision. Somehow, Otto and Sophie have advanced to middle age without acknowledging the debilitating anxiety that besets them. Fox uses a brief period of time—a weekend—to not only bear witness to the resulting breakdown, but to examine the choices the couple has made over the course of their marriage that lead to it. Unbelievably, all of this action and introspection occurs in less than 160 pages. As many others have noted, despite its brevity, Desperate Characters does not feel like a short story or novella; it offers the fullness of experience that only a novel can.
Sometimes uncomfortable, but very satisfying, Desperate Characters is a great read. Now that it has been rediscovered, I have hope that its newfound readership will not let this classic slip out of print again.