Paula Fox, Fighting Perfection
April 9, 2013 | by Jonathan Franzen
Our Spring Revel will take place tonight! In anticipation of the event, the Daily is featuring a series of essays celebrating Paula Fox, who is being honored this year with The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize. The following is excerpted from an essay that originally ran as the introduction to Desperate Characters.
A book that has fallen, however briefly, out of print can put a strain on even the most devoted reader’s love. In the way that a man might regret certain shy mannerisms in his wife that cloud her beauty, or a woman might wish that her husband laughed less loudly at his own jokes, though the jokes are very funny, I’ve suffered for the tiny imperfections that might prejudice potential readers against Desperate Characters. I’m thinking of the stiffness and impersonality of the opening paragraph, the austerity of the opening sentence, the creaky word “repast”: as a lover of the book, I now appreciate how the formality and stasis of the paragraph set up the short, sharp line of dialogue that follows (“The cat is back”); but what if a reader never makes it past “repast”? I wonder, too, if the name of the protagonist, “Otto Bentwood,” might be diffi cult to take on first reading. Fox generally works her characters’ names very hard— the name “Russel,” for instance, nicely echoes Charlie’s restless, furtive energies (Otto suspects him of literally “rustling” clients), and just as something is surely missing in Charlie’s character, a second “l” is missing in his surname. I do admire how the old- fashioned and vaguely Teutonic name “Otto” saddles Otto the way his compulsive orderliness saddles him; but “Bentwood,” even after many readings, remains for me a little artificial in its bonsai imagery. And then there’s the title of the book. It’s apt, certainly, and yet it’s no The Day of the Locust, no The Great Gatsby, no Absalom, Absalom! It’s a title that people may forget or confuse with other titles. Sometimes, wishing it were stronger, I feel lonely in the peculiar way of someone deeply married.
As the years have gone by, I’ve continued to dip in and out of Desperate Characters, seeking comfort or reassurance from passages of familiar beauty. Now, though, as I reread it in its entirety, I’m amazed by how much of the book is still fresh and unfamiliar to me. I never paid much attention, for example, to Otto’s anecdote, late in the book, about Cynthia Kornfeld and her husband the anarchist artist—how Cynthia Kornfeld’s salad of Jell- O and nickels mocks the Bentwood equation of food and privilege and civilization; how the notion of typewriters retrofitted to spew nonsense subtly prefigures the novel’s closing image; how the anecdote insists that Desperate Characters be read in the context of a contemporary art scene whose aim is the destruction of order and meaning. And then there’s Charlie Russel— have I ever really seen him until now? In my earlier readings he remained a kind of stock villain, a turncoat, an egregious man. Now he seems to me almost as important to the story as the cat is. He’s Otto’s only friend, his phone call precipitates the final crisis, he produces he Thoreau quotation that gives the book its title, and he delivers a verdict on the Bentwoods—“drearily enslaved by introspection while the foundation of their privilege is being blasted out from under them”— that feels ominously dead- on.
At this late date, however, I’m not sure I even want fresh insights. A serious danger in long marriages is how excruciatingly well you come to know the object of your love. Sophie and Otto suffer from their knowledge of each other, and I now suffer from my knowledge of Desperate Characters. My underlining and marginal annotation of it are getting out of hand. In my latest reading I’m finding and flagging as vital and central an enormous number of previously unflagged images involving order and chaos and childhood and adulthood. And, because the book is not long, and because I’ve now read it half a dozen times, I’m within sight of the point at which every sentence will be highlighted as vital and central. Th is extraordinary richness is, of course, a testament to Paula Fox’s genius. There’s hardly an extraneous or arbitrary word to be found in the book. Rigor and thematic density of such magnitude don’t happen by accident, and yet it’s almost impossible for a writer to achieve them while relaxing enough to allow the characters to come alive and the novel to be written, and yet here the novel is, soaring above all the other American realist fi ction since the Second World War.
The irony of the novel’s richness, however, is that the better I grasp the import of each individual sentence, the less able I am to articulate what grand, global meaning all these local meanings might be serving. There’s fi nally a kind of horror to an overload of meaning. It’s closely akin, as Melville suggests in “The Whiteness of the Whale” in Moby- Dick, to a total whiteout absence of meaning. It’s also, not incidentally, a leading symptom of diseased mental states. Manics and schizophrenics and depressives often suff er from the conviction that absolutely everything in their lives is fraught with significance— so fraught, indeed, that tracking and deciphering and organizing the significance can overwhelm the actual living of life. In the case of Otto and especially of Sophie (who is urged by two different doctors to seek psychiatric treatment), the reader is not the only one who’s overwhelmed. The Bentwoods themselves are highly literate, thoroughly modern characters. Their curse is that they’re all too well equipped to read themselves as literary texts dense with overlapping meanings. In the course of one late- winter weekend they become oppressed and finally overwhelmed by the way in which the most casual words and tiniest incidents feel like “portents.” The enormous suspense the book develops is not just a product of Sophie’s dread, then, or of Fox’s step by step closing of every possible avenue of escape, or of equating a crisis in a marital partnership with a crisis in a business partnership and a crisis in American urban life. More than anything else, I think, it’s the slow cresting of a crushingly heavy wave of iterary significance. Sophie consciously and explicitly evokes rabidness as a metaphor for her emotional and political plight, while Otto, in his last line, even as he fi nally breaks down and cries out about how desperate he is, cannot avoid “quoting” (in the postmodern sense) his and Sophie’s earlier conversation about Thoreau and thereby invoking all the other themes and dialogues threading through the weekend, in particular Charlie’s vexing of the issue of “desperation”: how much worse than simply being desperate it is to be desperate and also to be aware of the vital questions of public law and order and privilege and Thoreauvian interpretation that are entailed in that private desperation, and to feel that by breaking down you’re proving Charlie Russel right, though you know in your heart he’s wrong. When Sophie declares her wish to be rabid, as when Otto hurls the ink bottle, both seem to be revolting against an unbearable, almost murderous sense of the importance of their words and thoughts.Small wonder that the last actions of the book are wordless— that Sophie and Otto have “ceased to listen” to the words streaming from the telephone, and that the thing written in ink which they turn slowly to read is a violent, wordless blot. No sooner has Fox achieved the most dazzling success at fi nding order in the nonevents of one late- winter weekend than (with the perfect gesture!) she repudiates that order.
Desperate Characters is a novel in revolt against its own perfection. The questions it raises are radical and unpleasant. What is the point of meaning— especially literary meaning— in a rabid modern world? Why bother creating and preserving order if civilization is civilization is every bit as killing as the anarchy to which it’s opposed? Why not be rabid? Why torment ourselves with books? Rereading the novel for the sixth or seventh time, I feel a cresting rage and frustration with its mysteries and with the paradoxes of civilization and with the insuffi ciency of my own brain, and then, as if out of nowhere, I do get the ending, I feel what Otto Bentwood feels when he smashes the ink bottle against the wall; and suddenly I’m in love all over again.
Excerpt from “No End to It” from Farther Away by Jonathan Franzen. Copyright © 2012 by Jonathan Franzen. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
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