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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Urban pioineers - in Paula Fox's Desperate Characters

Paula Fox, who died recently, was known primarily as a top-flight YA writer, but she also wrote several novels for adults and over the years has been praised for these and "rediscovered" at least once - most notably when Jonathan Franzen raved about the 1970 novel, Desperate Characters, prompting a 1999 reissue with intro by JR. I read about half of this short novel last night - and - yes, it's very good of its type but it's a type that seems dated: a novel about a small set of NY intelligentsia professionals and their difficult marriages and criss-cross of relationships (reminded me for some reason of James Salter). Curiously, I took 2 books out of the library yesterday, the other being Cather's O Pioneers!, and, strangely, that could have been a (better?) title for Fox's novel - her characters are pioneers moving into Brooklyn brownstones at a time when the neighborhood was in transition: the main character, Sophie, walks the street on a Sat. morning and sees her neighbors scraping paint and updating windows while on an adjacent street they seem people dumping garbage into the alleys. I have to think part of Franzen's (and others') enthusiasm for this novel is about seeing a historical view of the kind of Brooklyn neighborhood now among the most posh and expensive and inhabited by folks much like JF. No doubt about it that Fox's style is smart and trenchant, although she does not have any sense of realistic dialogue - her characters all talk like, well, characters - not people. The scope of this novel is very small, and I don't (yet) see the desperation that drives the characters: Otto (Sophie's husband) is breaking up his law partnership, his ex-partner, Charlie, drops by their house in very late (or early) and he and Sophie go out for a drink, Sophie confesses to him that she'd had an affair, then we learn more about her affair (with one of Otto's clients), now a closed chapter, Sophie visits other friends and hears about their crappy marriages, and so far that's about it. The characters are never sympathetic - we just want to tell them, get a job, get a life, find something to do w/ your time and money. The looming crisis in the novel is of a symbolic nature: Sophie gets bitten on the hand by a feral cat, and though her hand swells significantly she refuses to see a doctor or go to a hospital for treatment. She could die! What's with her? We have to think that her reaction stems from a loathing of the people who she and her caste are displacing. The most sympathetic character, it turns out, is Charlie, who seems to care about his struggling clients - unlike Otto, who (like others in this novel) is crudely dismissive of the younger generation - in this era of liberation and anti-War protests - all that in the background, but Otto et al. are like Dylan's Mr. Jones: something's happening, but they don't know what it is. They're pioneers, but they're also a generation too late.

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