Desperate Characters: A Novel
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It's gentrifying. Get it straight. Go see "The Landlord," a great movie. Anyway, nice review. Sorry I disagreed with most of what you said. I'd read The Widow's Children next.
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It's my second favorite. A few thoughts. About the description that you quote, if you look over my review I'll think you'll see that I don't suggest that every adjective be removed. Also, I think that any book whose appreciation requires that its readers be mugged or attacked is in pretty bad shape. A novel, if it's any good, has to be convincing to all sorts of people - assuming they are reasonably bright and attentive readers - and not just the few who possess those qualities and have also had certain experiences in a handful of major American cities.
Post a Comment. I'm drawn to coterie obsessions: books brought back into print after years of neglect, waiting to finally be understood by the enlightened minority. Who doesn't want to be a member of an exclusive club of admirers? And Desperate Characters is definitely an exclusive sort of book. No one I know has ever heard of it, and it is swimming in praise from notable writers, all of whom consider it an unjustly ignored classic.
The novel deals with Otto and Sophie Bentwood, a wealthy and childless Brooklyn couple in their early 40s. The novel skips over Otto's life at the office, so we never see the couple engage in any productive work. Are you working on anything? There are so many who do it better than I do. It simply irritated me. Who the hell talks like this? She immediately proceeds to quote some Baudelaire, by the way. This exchange is close to the beginning of the novel, so I soldiered on, figuring it isn't always easy to get into an exclusive club.
There are three main engines of tension in Desperate Characters. Second, Sophie gets bitten on the hand by a cat, and keeps putting off going to the doctor — at the very end, we are still waiting to hear if the cat has rabies the two Bentwoods manage to catch the animal and get it to the ASPCA. If the cat does have rabies, Sophie will probably require a number of painful shots in her stomach. The third engine is that the world is going to shit.
Not only do the Bentwoods have a particularly unpleasant marriage, black people — yes, black people! There are drunk black people throwing up on the stoop; black people banging on the door and asking to make phone calls, black people leaving trash everywhere and generally making a mess of things.
In any case, the Bentwoods are not racist; all sorts of poor people make them uncomfortable, even white ones. Here, for example, is a description of the Haynes family.
The father is a caretaker for the Bentwoods' summer cottage, which has been trashed by some unknown intruders, and husband and wife have gone over to complain about the break-in: Sitting around the kitchen table like collapsed sacks of grain were Mrs. Haynes and the three Haynes children, two boys in their late teens, and a girl a few years younger. The girl was immensely fat. From beneath a tangle of burnt-looking fairish hair, she was staring down at a copy of Life magazine, her mouth open.
Is this really necessary? There is no longer any way that the Haynes family is going to surprise me: they have been summed up, and the rest of the pages in which they appear are entirely dead, because the author is only capable of hitting the same "white trash" button. Luckily there is not a great deal of this; we spend most of our time with rich white people who read their Baudelaire with mouths firmly shut.
In a scene that is utterly unconvincing, she confesses to Charlie that she had an affair recently and then hastily takes it back. But I saw no alternatives at the time. But the doctors formed a phalanx and wouldn't let me. I think they'd gotten money to place her. Desperate to escape what she calls "the country of my defeat", she took a troopship to Europe in In London she modelled, read for Twentieth Century-Fox and Victor Gollancz who had published her father , and then, as a stringer for a small British news service, reported on the reconstruction of Warsaw.
A year later she was back in New York.
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She had a second, "serious marriage", to Richard Sigerson, a PR agent, which produced two sons, Adam, now an environmental consultant with two children, and Gabriel, who has worked in zoos from Philadelphia to Madagascar. When that marriage in turn ended, about eight years later, she supported herself as a teacher at private schools and at a centre for delinquents; an autodidact, she also applied to Columbia University, passing an entrance exam despite her near-total lack of formal qualifications. I went to high school for about three months. She married Martin Greenberg, sometime editor of Commentary, a respected translator of Faust and Heinrich von Kleist and brother of the art critic Clement Greenberg, in In he won a Guggenheim fellowship, which gave Fox the support and time to write.
She embarked on two novels: Maurice's Room , for children, and Poor George, for adults. Between and , she published 15 books. When he apprehends a young delinquent in his home in the country, he decides to help the boy.
His wife strongly disapproves. But George, caught in blind philanthropic fervour, ignores her.
The first line of the novel - "Who listens? It's just some slight sense of there being a watershed moment in the war against conformity - and of course in retrospect the 60s look a little less revolutionary now. In her children's books, Fox does not shy away from difficult subjects: homelessness, disease, disability, death; she tends to focus on children who find themselves outsiders.
I think I write mostly about children who, like me, are out of the bowl. I had the experience on the streets that I wrote about in Monkey Island [about an year-old homeless boy in Manhattan], for example, and I have been in a storm at sea [ The Slave Dancer ]. Middle-class children don't get a certain kind of spiritual life with their parents. And it's a real deprivation. Oh my, although we did read the whole book, it was outrageous. It was too horrifying and it made my kids feel sick. I tried to explain that by being aware of the atrocities in life we can change the world and do things better.
That still didn't help. So Fox was not groundbreaking, but she always had her own voice and her own vision. And she's definitely among a handful of the finest writers of contemporary and historical fiction for children. Fox has loved writing for young people, finding it no less of a challenge than writing for adults.
And nobody ever said in a review of my children's books that I write down - I write straight across to them. I don't try to teach. Fox remembers a passage from Coleridge's Notebooks her husband once read to her. And she says oh, that was so good of you, and so wonderful. And Coleridge says that's the worst thing you could do to a child. You shouldn't be praised for doing what's right.
You should just do it. Sophie Bentwood, a middle-aged Brooklynite, puts down milk for a stray cat at the beginning of Desperate Characters In his introduction to the reprint, Franzen went further: "It seemed to me obviously superior to any novel by Fox's contemporaries, John Updike, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. It seemed unarguably great. And many have come to share Franzen's view. Instead, she distributes her formidable acumen unselfishly, so that even the most minor characters can suddenly offer crucial insight, and unsympathetic characters are often the most fascinating: brilliant, unfathomable and raging.
Unlike many other houses in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, it is not a brownstone, but a beautiful, spa cious English-style terrace house. She works at the top, in a room full of light lined with shelves of her own work in many foreign languages. When Fox's grandmother died, Elsie decided she shouldn't be told, as "she wouldn't be interested", and this throw-away cruelty was the seed for The Widow's Children , which eschews the baggier picaresque of The Western Coast, returning to the tight, controlled claustrophobia of her first two novels.
Laura, an ageing Spanish beauty, chooses not to tell a family gathering of her mother's death; instead she charges her editor friend Peter with the job. She's not to know! He knew he had to get Clara to the funeral. My mother set that off by saying I wouldn't be interested [in my grandmother's death].
But I sharpened a moral knife on that phrase and made it come out different. I think what she failed in was to be good in the way Peter was. To make me come to the funeral. This is Fox's favourite among her novels, and her publisher told her at the time it was her best - but declined to publish it. He felt it wouldn't sell.
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It was turned down by another A Servant's Tale, which followed in , was turned down by 17 before appearing. Her last adult novel, The God of Nightmares , had a slightly easier time but didn't survive. By they were all out of print although, Fox is keen to point out, "There were very few of them, but I never ran out of readers".