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Uneasy in Brooklyn

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I feel blessed to have discovered Paula Fox. Her Desperate Characters is one of those novels that, because of its clarity and compression, makes an almost physical impact on you. Instantly absorbed into the characters’ world, your delight and anticipation are only marred by dread of finishing the book – and this one is, cruelly, only 176 pages long.

First published in 1970, it has as its central characters Sophie and Otto Bentwood, an affluent middle-aged couple living in a Brooklyn poised uneasily between decay and gentrification. Sophie is bitten by a stray cat and the events of the next three days are underscored by her terror at the possible outcome. We are both drawn into this fear and bemused by her unwillingness to take any action to prevent what she most dreads. Reading it on the Tube, I inwardly cried, ‘For God’s sake get a tetanus jab, woman!’ The nervous shifts and tics of my fellow travellers suggested that my inner cry had been all too outer. It’s that kind of book.

For me, the fact that it was written in the 1960s makes it particularly interesting. I was a 19-year-old hippy when the novel was published and, reading it now from the slumped wasteland that is middle age, I recall with a mixture of irritation and pride my vociferous contempt for my parents’ adherence to the philosophy of golf and the finger-bowl. Here, the insurrectionist young are mainly offstage characters who drift through parties, cool, confident and contemptuous. ‘The young are dying of freedom,’ Otto declares splenetically. His partner, Charlie, leaves their shared law firm because of Otto’s lack of concern for the ‘undesirables’ that he wants to represent. Charlie pronounces a savage verdict on both Bentwoods:

You won’t survive what is 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.

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I feel blessed to have discovered Paula Fox. Her Desperate Characters is one of those novels that, because of its clarity and compression, makes an almost physical impact on you. Instantly absorbed into the characters’ world, your delight and anticipation are only marred by dread of finishing the book – and this one is, cruelly, only 176 pages long.

First published in 1970, it has as its central characters Sophie and Otto Bentwood, an affluent middle-aged couple living in a Brooklyn poised uneasily between decay and gentrification. Sophie is bitten by a stray cat and the events of the next three days are underscored by her terror at the possible outcome. We are both drawn into this fear and bemused by her unwillingness to take any action to prevent what she most dreads. Reading it on the Tube, I inwardly cried, ‘For God’s sake get a tetanus jab, woman!’ The nervous shifts and tics of my fellow travellers suggested that my inner cry had been all too outer. It’s that kind of book. For me, the fact that it was written in the 1960s makes it particularly interesting. I was a 19-year-old hippy when the novel was published and, reading it now from the slumped wasteland that is middle age, I recall with a mixture of irritation and pride my vociferous contempt for my parents’ adherence to the philosophy of golf and the finger-bowl. Here, the insurrectionist young are mainly offstage characters who drift through parties, cool, confident and contemptuous. ‘The young are dying of freedom,’ Otto declares splenetically. His partner, Charlie, leaves their shared law firm because of Otto’s lack of concern for the ‘undesirables’ that he wants to represent. Charlie pronounces a savage verdict on both Bentwoods:
You won’t survive what is 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.
Now that’s exactly what I wanted to say to my father in 1969. Had I read it at the time, Charlie would have been my hero. I now see him as a self-righteous prig. Ah me . . . the whirlygig of time. The sense of a generation losing control – a group of people in limbo – is reminiscent of Chekhov. He described his plays as exploring how ‘people eat their dinners – they just eat their dinners – and all the time their happiness is being established or their lives destroyed’. A threat of looming chaos ticks under the comfortably ordered lives of the Bentwoods and periodically erupts in small, random events: a brick thrown into a society party; a series of anonymous phone calls, an ungentrified neighbour routinely peeing through his window.We follow Sophie as she attends soirées, lunches with an old friend, escapes to her country retreat – and always there is the underlying throb of recognition that ‘Life had been soft for so long . . . edgeless and spongy . . . and now . . . this undignified confrontation with mortality.’ I must hurriedly stress that Desperate Characters is not a book of unremitting gloom. Indeed, one of the things I love about it is its humour and wit. There is the glorious description of a lethargic hick family ‘sitting around the kitchen table like collapsed sacks of grain’. An influential psychoanalyst/theatre producer ‘was remote. He was like a man preceded into the room by acrobats.’ Now you know one of those, don’t you? Or perhaps have had the misfortune of working for one. Fox is particularly adroit at catching the shifting resentments and manipulations of a long-term marriage. Although Otto appears solicitous about Sophie’s bitten hand, ‘It flashed through her mind that he was sympathetic because the cat had justified his warning against it.’ Are not such tiny victories and defeats the stuff that marriages are made of? The book is full of such uncomfortably recognizable insights. Her skill in creating place is consummate. Having, with some waspishness, evoked the Bentwoods’ effortlessly cultured milieu, she turns to the squalor of an Accident & Emergency department which ‘combined the transient quality, the dishevelled atmosphere of a public terminal with the immediately apprehended terror of a way station to disaster’. And I love the way she personifies and ‘moves’ the inanimate. A street caught up in a relentless process of gentrification has ‘a quiet earnest look, as if it were continuing to try to improve itself in the dark’. As Sophie returns home from an ambiguous nighttime encounter with Charlie, she feels objects’ outlines ‘beginning to harden . . . [they] had a shadowy totemic menace. Chairs, tables and lamps seemed only to have just assumed their accustomed positions.’ Paradoxically, for a writer who has such a charmed relationship with words, Fox seems to be questioning their value in Otto’s final hurling of the inkstand at the wall. The novel poses many questions – but I have two of my own. First – why was it out of print for so long? Second – why aren’t you already hoofing off to your nearest bookshop to get a copy?

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 1 © Jenny Baynes 2004


About the contributor

Jenny Baynes is a lecturer who currently teaches Literature at the City Literary Institute. She also writes ‘performance poetry’ which has been featured on BBC2.

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