June 19, 2010


by Paula Fox
176 pages, W. W. Norton and Company

Review by Maria Bustillos

A lot of writers hang out here, so permit me to recommend the recent Norton edition of this classic, with an introduction by Jonathan Franzen. But don’t read the Franzen bit until after you’re done.

This influential novella, first published in 1970, is a darling of the whole New Yorker/MFA fiction junta. So you might gather that it is quite bleak and serious, an upper-middlebrow kind of book, and you’d be right about that. The very heady blurbs, studded with such words as “masterpiece”, “perfect”, “brilliant”, “brilliant”, “brilliant, “a revelation”, etc., come from Jonathan Lethem, David Foster Wallace, Shirley Hazzard, Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe and Walter Kirn, with the cover blurb courtesy of The New Yorker itself. So you won’t perhaps be surprised when I say that for years I have avoided reading this novel like the plague.

Fortunately, Desperate Characters turns out to be an absolutely great novel! I enjoyed it just hugely, and I have to admit, it really is brilliant.

The desperate characters of the book’s title—well, the author seems really to mean to include the whole human race in there. But the central ones in the book are Otto and Sophie Bentwood, a proto-yuppie married couple who have been suffocated by the demands of married life, of civilized society, and of the human condition in general. They’re so civilized, so controlled, that the reader too begins almost at once to feel their claustrophobia. The book is about the many scary, uncontrollable things that are roiling underneath all that control.

Fox’s prose is wrought with the most consummate grace and economy; reading it is like watching a ballet dancer’s total control, and total economy of movement. Even more dazzling is the fact that she is able to make me feel absolutely breathless and disturbed about these people who in real life would drive me just crazy. It is a tremendously empathetic book. And finally, despite all the artistry with which the book is constructed, you just catapult straight through the thing because the story is so suspenseful. It’s a (harrowing) afternoon’s read, and just amazingly instructive from a craft point of view. The Franzen essay, which, as I was saying, you are advised to read afterward, is a marvel of literary criticism, plus a valuable meditation on the craft of fiction. Highly, highly recommended.

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