28 February 2019

Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

I read this book a few years ago and decided I wanted to re-read it after finishing Jonathan Franzen's newest book of essays. I don't know why but as I was reading his new book I was reflecting a lot on his last book of essays Further Away. In it he writes about Paula Fox's 1970 novel Desperate Characters. I felt compelled to re-read it so I could write my own review. So here it is:

I ordered Desperate Characters the minute I finished Franzen's essay and was happy to learn that the edition I ordered had an introduction by him in it. Franzen mentions in the introduction that he has read Fox's book at least half a dozen times and that he always assigns it to whatever writing class he happens to be teaching. I was happy to re-read it and can see why he does so often. The book is very well written and the plot is something I'm particularly interested in, but it's also only 190 pages.

Desperate Characters was written almost fifty years ago but it still feels modern (aside from how racist the protagonists openly are) because it tackles subject matter that will literally always exist - marital discord.

The book covers a brief period in Sophie and Otto Bentwood's marriage. Obviously their marriage is already full of unresolved issues and bitterness but it boils over after Sophie is bit by a cat. Essentially the book opens up with the Bentwood's sitting down to dinner when Sophie notices the stray cat she's been feeding. She goes to give it some leftover chicken and it bites her left hand:

She smiled, wondering how often, if ever before, the cat had felt a friendly human touch, and she was still smiling as the cat reared up on its hind legs, even as it struck at her with extended claws, smiling right up to that second when it sank its teeth into the back of her left hand and hung from her flesh so that she nearly fell forward, stunned and horrified, yet conscious enough of Otto's presence to smother the cry that arose in her throat as she jerked her hand back from the circle of barbed wire."

For the rest of the book Sophie is like losing her mind over this bite and her fear of contracting rabies. She is constantly freaking out about it internally or letting people know what happened to her, but she refuses to get any real help for it. As her hand swells and aches she starts to fight more and more with her husband.

The book of essays by Jonathan Franzen where I first read about Paula Fox's Desperate Characters
Franzen talks a lot about this in his essay but a lot of this book is about the fear of pain, and how that fear is often worse than the pain itself. I know pretty much everyone relates, but I spend too much of my free time worrying about this sort of thing. I am so afraid that I am going to fall and break my arm, and I find myself thinking about it COMPULSIVELY. I've never broken anything before and I'm not an active person (lol) or even adventurous at all, and yet this injury is on my mind always. Sophie expresses it clearly with this sentence:

'Pain frightens me more than dying,' Sophie said. 'I won't even let them give me painkillers because I'm afraid the pain will win over them. Then there would be nothing - except pain.'"

There's also this amazing scene where Sophie and Otto are fighting and he ends the argument by screaming at her "IT'S LIKE YOU WANT TO BE RABID!"

I have been trying to figure out the literary device for a situation like the one in Desperate Characters. I was so attracted to reading the book when I found out the main plot point is that a woman is bit by a cat and her marriage starts to implode. This was very similar to the book The Vegetarian (which I review here) where she has this violent dream that turns her vegetarian and her marriage also ends up falling apart. If you know the term I'm looking for please let me know because this is clearly the kind of book I'm attracted to.

Paula Fox
As everyone and their dog knows by now, I love a good book about a bad marriage. Fox doesn't disappoint with this one. Sophie and Otto take all kinds of hurtful little jabs at each other that anyone in a long-term relationship can recognize all too well. But it's not just through dialogue that we see this stuff. Fox also has it in her prose, and one of my favourite lines was this:

They were both standing rigidly, each half-consciously amassing evidence against the other, charges that would counterbalance the exasperation that neither could fathom."

I am mostly interested in the marital fighting, but there is a little bit about an affair (Sophie's) that was really well written too. There's a lot of stuff about feeling guilty, etc. But something Fox included that I loved so much was how Sophie would often "put herself to sleep" on thoughts of her lover (Francis - one of Otto's clients). She says she would often get into bed and think of Francis for hours until she'd finally fall asleep, and she compares it to the same method of giving a baby a rag to chew on before bed. Disturbingly real.

Of course one of the most interesting parts of affairs are what they do to your marriage/relationship. I love this one scene where she is mulling over what her affair (now over) has done to the security she once felt in her own marriage:

If, all these months, she had so ardently lived a life apart from Otto without his sensing something, it meant that their marriage had run down long before she had met Francis; either that, or worse - once she had stepped outside rules, definitions, there were none."

I found this book so effecting because of how painful it is to read and recognize similarities in your own past and current relationships. I've said so many awful things to my boyfriend out of exasperation ... trying to hurt him because I felt he hurt me. Brutal stuff.

lol but I love cats
One of the last passages I want to include is an insult aimed at Sophie, Otto, and their peers. It comes from Otto's ex-business partner and pretty much sums up everyone I know (myself included):

'You are out of the world, tangled in personal life. You won't survive this ... what's happening now. People like you ... stubborn and stupid and drearily enslaved by introspection while the foundation of their privilege is being blasted out from under them.'"

God if someone said that to me I'd probably puke. It was hard enough reading on page.

ANYWAYS, I love this book. I've read it before and I'm sure I'll read it again - just like Franzen. I'd recommend this to anyone who loves fiction and loves their significant other (even if they're busy hating them).

1 comment:

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