Thursday, March 16, 2017
Why Franzen over-states the case for Desperate Characters
There are many impressive aspects to Paula Fox's 1970 novel Desperate Characters, but I have to say that Jonathan Franzan, whose enthusiasm for this novel sparked its reisssue in 1999, w/ Franzen intro., that he ludicrously over-estimates this novel: Better than anything from Updike, Roth, or Bellow? Seriously? DCs is a thoughtful, provocative novel of NY domestic life among the professional class circa 1970, when the city was evolving, becoming increasingly gentrified, and the nation itself was in upheaval, with the social and political changes from the 60s generation and the anti-war movement, all threatening the establishment and established beliefs and customs. That's the background to this novel, and Fox pays the social context due homage; and Franzen is right that she is an expert at symbolism (the central character, Sophie Bentwood, gets bitten by a feral cat at the outset, and novel in effect is about her fear of and delay in getting proper treatment - throughout there is a sense that the Bentwoods, pioneers in settling into a "changing" Brooklyn neighborhood, are invading alien territory and are likely to be "attacked" by the denizens) and line by line she's up there w/ any writer - her phrasing, pacing, and imagery are perfect. The better comparison for her style would be Salter, as noted in yesterday's post, and Yates - she does feel like a 50s writer 20 years behind her rightful time. All that said, what makes DCs troubling for me is that the characters up and down are despicable. I'm not such a Philistine as to think that characters in novels have to be "likable," but Fox's people merit our contempt. Fox is terrific at topical description, but we need to take her descriptions in context. Some of the finest scenes involve her description of squalor - but the vision is always that of her characters, looking down on others, judging, and feeling no empathy or responsibility (except for pity for the damn cat). One example among many, as the Bentwoods are driving to their Long Island summer house they pass through Queens (Gatsby's drive in reverse?) and we get a long passage about the dingy neighborhoods and squalid housing - and then Sophie says to her husband, Otto, that she wishes there were another way to drive out to the Island, she hates this view. He tells her not to look at at. Yes, don't look, that will make things better. These people throughout have no thoughts for anyone but themselves - even treating like dirt their so-called friends and business partners and any of the younger generation representative of the spirit of the age. I guess there's a great irony at the end, when their summer house is trashed (not their Brooklyn house, where they live in wary fear of intruders) - but even there Fox can't resist having the Bentwoods meet with their so-called caretaker and his family, a group of grotesques, another order of being from the Bentwoods altogether. So in my view this is a novel to admire, to analyze maybe, but not one that evokes fear and pity - only disgust.