Desperately Seeking Stability

Paula Fox keeps finding ways to explore the conflict between chaos and control.

Paula Fox

Some books are passed along like secrets from one reader to another, quietly and almost in embarrassment: not Hey, have you heard about this book? but Is it possible, maybe, that you haven’t heard about it yet? or Has everybody else already read it, and loved it, and I’m the last to know? Paula Fox’s iconic second novel, Desperate Characters, is one of these books. Published in 1970, it is a Brooklyn novel from a time before the “Brooklyn writer” had become a cliché: the story of Sophie and Otto Bentwood, a pair of early gentrifiers who are unexpectedly catapulted (Fox fans, please forgive that irresistible pun) out of their bourgeois life by a single random event. Though hailed when it first appeared and then adapted into a film starring Shirley MacLaine in 1971, the novel languished out of print, unjustly, for years. Then in the early 1990s Jonathan Franzen discovered it while browsing the library at Yaddo. His mention of Desperate Characters in a prominent Harper’s essay piqued the interest of an editor at Norton, which reissued it in 1999 with an introduction by Franzen. Over the next few years, Fox’s five other adult novels (she is also the author of 22 books for children) were reissued as well.

Absent a movie tie-in or similar act of God, once novels are out of print, they tend to stay that way. The Fox revival was highly unusual—Fox herself confessed in a New York Times Magazine profile that she was “bewildered” by her newfound acclaim. Yet no one else seemed surprised: not the critics who were suddenly revealing that they had always loved her work, nor the younger writers—Jonathan Lethem, Andrea Barrett—who proudly claimed Fox as their progenitor. Thirty years after its original publication, her story of quiet urban desperation was so deeply resonant with the contemporary mood that it seemed as if it had always been in the background. The Bentwoods are in the process of discovering that the old standards they had relied on to anchor their lives—marriage, work, real estate—are more fragile than they knew. Their metaphysical uncertainty is perfectly echoed by the book’s form—a collection of supercharged episodes held together by the novelist’s strength of will rather than a traditional plot.

It’s all the more striking, then, that just as a new generation of readers was asserting the necessity of her novels, Fox herself turned away from fiction. Over the last decade she has devoted herself almost exclusively to memoir. But these two projects turn out to be complementary, because the memoirs reveal that Fox has spent her life engaged with the same conflict that animates so much of her fiction: the establishment of some kind of bedrock—personal or narrative—amid turmoil. In Borrowed Finery (2001), Fox wrote dispassionately but poignantly of a difficult childhood spent passed from one relative or family friend to another; her parents, both Hollywood screenwriters, were generally too drunk (her father) or too unstable (her mother) to care for her. The Coldest Winter (2005) told of her experiences in Europe in the chaos following World War II, where, as a stringer for an obscure British newspaper, her job was to assimilate the ruins into coherent structures. And her new book, News From the World, pairs an assortment of previously published short stories, some dating back to the 1960s, with a series of autobiographical lectures and essays that tell of the often-complicated adult life—divorce, children, friendships, family—that took place behind the scenes of her fiction.

Fox’s memoirs are bare of confession: Anyone hoping to discover a personal source for the Bentwoods’ tense marriage of intimacy and estrangement will come up empty-handed. Her personal troubles appear only obliquely, as when she describes moving into a new apartment “with my two young sons, our clothes, a few pieces of furniture, some boxes of books and games and papers, including my divorce decree, and a carton or two of kitchen odds and ends.” She does allow a glimpse of her long and happy third marriage to Martin Greenberg, the editor of Commentary when they met and the brother of the art critic Clement Greenberg, but she is nearly taciturn in her omission of personal details. Readers of her previous memoirs will notice the gaps: A reference to a hospital visit from “Linda, my daughter,” neglects to mention that Linda—as we know from Borrowed Finery—was given up for adoption by Fox at birth; the two reconnected later in life. But the gaps have a purpose. They emphasize that these pieces do not intend to provide a comprehensive account of the life and times of Paula Fox. Their task is to excavate from that life a series of meaningful moments, not unlike the way the 6-year-old Fox, during her girlhood in upstate New York, was once obsessed with breaking open rocks to see what was inside.

“My father, Paul Hervey Fox, was a writer and a drunk,” Fox begins the preface to the book, which reveals one of the opposing pulls of stability and chaos that oriented, and disoriented, her life. He was her role model—an inspiration behind her choice to become a writer—but an inconsistent, confusing one: He managed to produce only a few novels, “with periods of alcoholic indulgence in between,” and was usually drunk during her brief visits with him as a child. But as a young woman she met a writing couple named Pat and Mary, who demonstrated a very different version of the writing life. “Everything about them was contrary to what I had absorbed—as if it had been a religion—from my father,” she writes of the couple, to whom she dedicates this collection. “Their goodness, their sobriety, the seriousness with which they worked, their welcoming sweetness of being, their high sense of the comic in life, were in stark contrast to Paul Fox’s lack of seriousness,” his neglect and narcissism. On the one hand, irresponsibility and decadence; on the other, calm, intellect, good humor: These twin poles perhaps seemed always equally possible, and her task was to maneuver between them.

The dominant characteristic of Fox’s fiction may well be the intensity of attention that she brings to her scenes. By the end of Desperate Characters, every detail in the book—from the place settings on the Bentwoods’ table to the bottle of ink that Otto finally, violently, hurls against a wall—feels loaded with meaning. When Fox fixes this attention on her own life, its force radiates through the moments she depicts until they almost seem to glow. In “Frieda in Taos,” we see D.H. Lawrence, an object of Fox’s lifelong love, remembered by the poet Witter Bynner as he enters his kitchen at dawn after a raucous party to matter-of-factly do the dishes. In the image of the solitary Lawrence at the sink—which appears in a chapter recounting a particularly tumultuous period in Fox’s life, the disintegration (in New Mexico) of the second of her two short-lived early marriages—Fox discovers the devotion to household tasks of Paul Morel, the hero of Sons and Lovers, and an unappreciated domestic side of the writer and his work. In “Clem,” she draws an unsentimental portrait of her brother-in-law in which his boorish personality is inseparable from his genius as an art critic. “I sensed in him an enormous vitality of interest, as well as an opposing capacity for boredom,” she writes. “His heavy drinking blurred both qualities in his later years.”

Throughout the memoirs, as in her fiction, Fox is drawn to outsiders—people who, for whatever reason, distance themselves from the mainstream. “The Tender Night,” the most poignant piece in the book, depicts her intimate relationship with a character on the margins. Her friendship with Jack, a gay man who lived in the apartment below hers, begins when he comes to her door to return a copy of Tender Is the Night that he had found in the hallway. The two quickly find that “we both seemed to brighten in each other’s company.” He introduces her to the art of Maria Callas and plays with her sons; she worries for his safety after he is attacked by a would-be sex partner in Central Park.

Eventually Fox remarries and moves to Brooklyn, while Jack’s life slowly disintegrates. He breaks up with his partner, holds a number of unsteady jobs, and ultimately becomes homeless. Diagnosed with AIDS, he winds up in a veterans’ hospital, where he confesses to Fox on his deathbed that his original story about the book was a lie. He had stolen it out of one of her moving boxes so that he could have a pretext to meet her. “I saw you smile at one of the movers. I wanted you to smile at me that way.” Somehow it only adds pathos to this story to know that the friendship was based on a deception. These two people, on such different trajectories, brought together by a lie and a book: Isn’t that, in a nutshell, what fiction is?

If Fox’s fiction has a flaw, it’s that it sometimes feels overly burnished. Her characters always seem to say exactly the right thing, or even the right wrong thing, and real life is rarely so perfect. In her autobiographical writing, Fox is more inclined to let the ragged edges poke through—an aesthetic perfectly suited to these stories of connection and disconnection. The climax of Desperate Characters comes when Sophie, who has been tormented throughout the novel by the fear that she was infected with rabies by a cat that bit her, realizes, in yet another perfectly tuned line, “God, if I am rabid, I am equal to what is outside.” Admitting that chaos and stability must always exist at the same time finally brings her some relief. One imagines, reading these memoirs, that Fox must once have made the same discovery.