Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Paula Fox's Desperate Characters

I finished reading Paula Fox's Desperate Characters last night. At one hundred fifty-six pages, this tidy little bomb hasn't a word to spare. It's about as inspirational as a bottle of bad bourbon on a lonely Saturday night. Starbucks wouldn't touch it with a latte stirrer.

Published in 1970, Desperate Characters is the story of Sophie and Otto Bentwood, an upper-middle-class couple living in Brooklyn. Childless and houseproud, their marriage a sham, they pick at one another with muted, desperate rage. Sophie is indolent, a translator from the French who cannot find the energy to work; Otto, a lawyer, is outraged by the changing society he inhabits. Underpinning the unraveling marriage is Otto's separation from his law partner, Charlie Russel, whose desire to take on charity cases makes Otto livid.

"There's Family Court," Charlie said, pointing up the street. "Your husband won't set foot in there. Too low class." (35)

Indeed, it is too low class for Otto, but also for Sophie. Both are horrified by the garbage, poverty, and urban ugliness of their city; much is made of the street they inhabit:

"With one or two exceptions, each of the houses on the Bentwoods' block was occupied by one family. All of the houses had been built during the final third of the last century, and were of brick or brownstone. Where the brick had been cleaned, a chalky pink glow gave off an air of antique serenity. Most front parlor windows were covered by white shutters. Where owners had not yet been able to afford them, pieces of fabric concealed the life within behind the new panes of glass. These bits of cloth, even though they were temporary measures, had a certain style, a kind of forethought about taste...what the owners of the street lusted after was recognition of their superior comprehension of what counted in this world, and their strategy for getting it combined restraint and indirection." (12)

Sophie and Otto own a second home, a farmhouse, in the village of Flynders. They drive up one weekend to find locals have systematically vandalized the paintings, the paisley couch, broken the wooden broom. The Bennington-ware pitcher is shattered. "She went into the living room and looked around the bare walls. All the sweet, pretty things were gone, things she had found in junk shops or picked off the ground, or bought in antiques stores." (140)

The caretaker and local law enforcement don't bother to hide their malice. They are the underclass, dependent on summer people like Sophie and Otto to keep their economy solvent.

Everything and everyone is drear; the filthy city, the slovenly neigbors, the unhappy friends. When Sophie finally visits the emergency room to seek treatment for a cat bite, the scene is from Kafka, complete with a scowling guard seated behind a high desk.

Ultimately the book leaves us with nothing but the pitiless light trained on this unhappy couple. Otto and Sophie will continue as they are, nearly paralyzed with unhappiness, rendered incoherent. The anomie, social isolation, and middle-class obsession with a highly perfected sort of real estate are all shockingly contemporary. But for the lack of computers, this book could, sadly, be a current publication.

Paula Fox: Desperate Characters. New York: W.W. Norton, 1970.

Authors, Book Reviews


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