Poor George
Paula Fox 
W.W. Norton & Company, $13 (paper)

Desperate Characters 
Paula Fox 
W.W. Norton & Company, $12 (paper)

The Widow's Children
Paula Fox 
W.W. Norton & Company, $13 (paper)

There are no careless moves in the fiction of Paula Fox. Reading her six novels for adults (she has also written more than twenty books for young readers), you sense that there isn't anything she hasn't precisely weighed, looked at from multiple angles, considered the opposite of, or seen a credible contradiction to. An empirical writer, she views her characters—including the real-life subjects of her acclaimed new memoir, Borrowed Finery—without illusion, and keeps them pinned down for the duration. Possessed of both sense and sensibility, they are almost never simplistic, and the few who don't measure up are dismissed in a paragraph or a page or two. It's not that Fox has no patience for human folly. Rather, she sees folly, as well as other human shortcomings and strengths, in the complex matrix of personality, the prison and the ambiguity of identity. Her characters have an endemic discontent that, even if keyed in their own minds to some sense of social or cultural malaise, is actually an incompleteness within themselves. Largely incapable of serious self-reflection, they still seem forever on the verge of learning something—and then resisting such knowledge because it rubs irritably against some essential truth (or even delusion) of their atomic definition. Identity, weak or willfully strong, confounds them, and they throw up their hands, helpless. When someone in a Fox novel characteristically cries out "I don't know anything!" the moment, for all its fleeting despair, is both comic and tragic. Comic, because Fox's characters possess keen intelligence and worldliness and are usually nowhere near giving up. Tragic, because unknowingness is the human condition, and, in the end, there's no getting around it.

A committed writer since the mid-1960s, Paula Fox has been equally clear-eyed about the publishing world, a world that has only recently brought her the full measure of respect long accorded her by serious readers. Though she has said she finds great pleasure in writing her children's books (which have received numerous prizes—including the Newbery Medal—and wide critical acclaim), she has used them to support the more speculative writing of her adult novels. She has no illusions about the exigencies of the marketplace either, and the disappearance of all of those novels from print until 1999 has proved her right. One of the key figures in her 1976 volume The Widow's Children, Peter Rice, is a publisher who is so disenchanted by "the ceaseless din" of publishing and the insatiable demands of writers ("Why were their books not in this store or that one? What the hell was the matter with the distributors? Had the salesmen been ordered to ignore their books because their views were unpopular?") that he no longer enjoys reading at all. And when another character in the same novel tells his sister about a porn star who has written her autobiography, saying, "'Publishing … editors…interviews …the world of literature!'" she replies, "'What better place for a cocksucker?'" Yet, as sometimes happens in the quixotic and cross-fertilizing realms of publishing and PR, five of Fox's novels from the 60s and 70s are once again available, in appealing paperback editions from Norton: Poor George (1967), Desperate Characters(1970), The Widow's Children (1976), The Western Coast (1972), and A Servant's Tale (1984). Another, The God of Nightmares(1990), is scheduled to be published in March 2002. That will see all of the novels returned to print. In addition, Fox's shimmering memoir, Borrowed Finery, which was excerpted in The New Yorker last summer, was published in September by Henry Holt, to very fine reviews. At seventy-eight, Fox has a new-found and stylishly invigorated fame that gives her grande dame status for a swelling number of devotees who have come to recognize her charm, her wisdom, and her art.

Around 1980 I read a reprint of Desperate Characters, which I was drawn to by a blurb from Irving Howe. Howe said the novel had taken its place "in a major American tradition, the line of the short novel exemplified by Billy BuddThe Great GatsbyMiss Lonelyhearts, and Seize the Day." There was, I found, no exaggeration: I was shattered by the book's raw emotional honesty. Now, with each reissue, it becomes clearer that Desperate Characters was no fluke. Andrea Barrett, in her introduction to The Widow's Children, puts Fox in the company of Katherine Mansfield, Willa Cather, Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark, and Flannery O'Connor. But the list could go on and on, and with male writers too—Cheever, Updike, Bellow, Roth. It is only company, however. Fox's work has a purity of vision, and a technique undiminished by hommage or self-indulgence.

Poor George was Fox's first novel, and if you want preparation for the thornier experience that is Desperate Characters, it is a good place to begin. Less chronologically compressed than the two other books under discussion here, it takes place over a single spring and summer in the mid- to late-1960s. The title character (it is his sister Lila who, with somewhat disingenuous sympathy, refers to him as "poor George") is George Mecklin, an English teacher in Manhattan, married for eight years, and now living in "the country," a train-commute away from work. It is a move he felt he wanted to make, but, if anything, it has dislocated him further from the nebulous sense he has of himself in the world. It has exacerbated his boredom, further strained relations with his wife, Emma, and set in motion a series of psychic disturbances that he is ill equipped to handle. Not a man lacking in brains—few Fox characters are—George is an observer who is sometimes self-consciously voyeuristic, sometimes perplexed by his helpless inability to see very far inside things. Occasionally he approaches a breakthrough, but then a curtain falls: "There was so much about people he had never understood, not so much the question of motive or purpose, but the mystery of authority, of substantiality ….Perhaps he was close to discovery; perhaps it was all gimcrack, a cheap cover for his old weaknesses, brought on by a spell of self-righteousness." The inchoate epiphany stops right there. Next line: "…he had taken to eating between meals, whenever he liked."

Early in the novel, George comes home to find an intruder in the house, a seventeen-year-old boy named Ernest Jenkins, a school dropout and a really serious voyeur (he relishes telling George the unpleasant things he sees through people's windows). Ernest is not a vandal or even much of a thief. Like George he is bored and aimless. But he is also cynical, sullen, lazy, rude, bigoted, and volatile. With a desperate home life and no apparent prospects, he has virtually given up, and belongs to a street gang. George responds to him almost immediately—wants, in some way, to rescue him. He insists on tutoring the boy and discovers that he'd rather read Conrad to this one unruly delinquent than teach Moby-Dick to a roomful of plodding sophomores. The relationship with Ernest, who is never reliable and only rarely attentive, quickens George's lethargic nerves—George, whose neighbor tells him he looks like "a piece of office furniture," whose sister says he's "like a pumpkin waiting to have a face carved on it"; George, who wonders "what a portrait of himself would look like" and decides "it would be a portrait of a suit." In his own idealistic mind, George is trying to give Ernest civilization, the capacity to be interested: "He had to convince Ernest of—of what? Convince him that much had gone before, that he had not sprung from sticks and stones to find himself on a dead planet thinly covered with sidewalks leading nowhere."

But Fox is no idealist, and George is no hero. (You never think of characters in Fox's novels in heroic terms; one way or another, she always knows how to deflate them.) Emma won't let her husband's professed motives go unchallenged. Friends are sarcastic about George's "project." And from the beginning, when George first lays eyes on Ernest, we suspect that a need deeper than sociological altruism has been struck. "He was, George thought, almost beautiful. His features were purely linear, like those of wooden saints in cathedral niches. His narrow-lipped mouth was finely delineated, his cheeks long and flat. But when he turned, how different he was! Then his mouth was thin as thread; his lynxlike lid suggested secretiveness. He seemed bloodless." Not long after, George watches him sleep and "felt himself close to tears." Is this a manifestation of paternal instinct? George is childless, but he is only thirty-four, and Ernest turns eighteen that summer. Emma, who dislikes Ernest intensely and disapproves of the whole arrangement, half-fancifully accuses George of homoerotic attraction, words that sting for longer than a moment. Is she so far wrong? Fox won't say, but she treats clearly homosexual characters with much sympathy in later novels like The God of Nightmares, and her gay Uncle Leopold is one of the few lovable figures in her memoir. Near the end of Poor George, once he has inevitably been betrayed by his protégé, George decides he "had never felt a thing for Ernest, only fear." But this verbal absolute is only a fractional truth, like any other. Fox leaves the knotty psychology of George's feelings intransigent to a single diagnosis. In many ways, he is an enigma to the end.

In his irritatingly coy introduction to the new edition, Jonathan Lethem writes, "But really, here's the key thing about poor George: don't tell the guy, but he's made of gorgeous sentences." Well, it's true that there's not an off-key passage in the book. This early in her career Fox was already a master of cadence and elegant syntax. Every line is lucid, and no paragraph goes on too long. But in the dialogue, especially between George and Emma, the sentences aren't gorgeous at all; they're abrupt, truncated, awkwardly cued, loaded with indirection. They're jabbingly Pinteresque. Not only, as Emma tells George, do these two not know how to fight, they barely know how to converse. After eight years of marriage, George is just now telling Emma things she should have heard long ago. And once she leaves him, George informs his friend Walling (the only friend he has), "'I liked Emma,'" then immediately realizes he has lied. This time we believe him completely. He hardly knew who she was.

No, Fox's gorgeous sentences are far from the key thing about "poor George," character or novel. This book, with all its 60s weather (race, political disaffection, single-motherhood, a Cheeverian cocktail party, and a "swinging" adulterer are part of the social climate), is a classic story of an underdeveloped, undernourished spirit sealed inside a passionless body. George Mecklin could come right out of Chekhov or Gogol, a secondary figure given center stage, but a figure too unconfident ever to be truly at center stage in his own life. Even when violence hits him—real, life-threatening violence from a man with a gun—the circumstances are almost farcical. Thus Fox's humor keeps rescuing George from morbidity or sentiment. He is not a clown, though, and in the end, when he pronounces himself a fool, he can't be dismissed as such—and so swept out with the rest of errant humanity. Left to his own unstellar devices, he has at least come to a knowledge of not knowing, a knowledge of mystery and chaos:

Women wanted blood and death on the face—forgiveness in the heart. He was supposed to look like what had happened to him. Lila had tormented him; he had cheated her by looking like a pumpkin. Didn't they know understanding had its own procedures—and that he didn't understand? He could hardly give himself an illusion of sequence; the events which had taken place were terrible because they seemed random, inexplicable.

On the last page of the novel, George is to start telling his story—Emma, Ernest, Lila, the gunshot wound that could have killed him—to his friend Walling. He will have to give those inexplicable events some illusion of sequence, and relate to Walling, however inadequately, what Fox has eloquently told us. Poor George! If he will stumble upon any truths in the telling is anybody's guess.

• • •

When Paula Fox published Desperate Characters in 1970, it was quickly recognized as a tour de force. Her reputation, for a time anyway, was assured. And no wonder. Once confronted—and reading Desperate Characters is a kind of confrontation—the novel refuses to be ignored. It's one of those books that stares back, as pitilessly as a Gorgon. There's no real comfort in it, certainly no palliative, and yet it produces an ineffable exhilaration. It's so nervously pulsating it seems electrified. Part of this neurotic effect comes from the narrative alone, which is propelled by a simple engine of relentless suspense. On a Friday evening in Brooklyn, circa 1969, Sophie and Otto Bentwood are having a quiet dinner at home. Every detail of that home (there's a bookcase filled with "the complete works of Goethe and two shelves of French poets") suggests affluence and culture. Otto is a lawyer, Sophie a translator. Married fifteen years, they have no children and are apparently past the prospect. They are soon to go to a party. Sophie's first words—the book's first line of speech—are "'The cat is back.'" And that innocuous remark, uttered while Otto is unfolding his linen napkin, ushers in pain, fear, menace, desperation, and anarchy. Sophie goes outside to feed the cat, a stray, and in return for her kindness (one can't help thinking of George and Ernest) the cat fiercely bites her hand. The cruelty of the act baffles her, but to her "Why?" Otto tersely answers, "'Because it's savage.'" Thus savagery, a festering wound Sophie tries to overlook, and the possibility of rabies and its unspeakable horrors enter these well-upholstered lives. Sophie serves the cat its milk in a Meissen saucer.

In the long weekend that follows—the novel ends at noon on Monday, fewer than seventy-two hours later—other disturbing things happen. A rock is thrown through the bedroom window of a friend of the Bentwoods. Sophie receives a late-night phone call with no voice on the other end. A stranger, a black man, turns up at the Bentwoods' door wanting to use the telephone and asking for money. Sophie and Otto go out to their house on Long Island and find it thoroughly ravaged by vandals—furniture destroyed, a dead catbird in the bathtub, human feces in the hearth. Otto's law partnership with his oldest friend, Charlie Russel, comes to an end, leaving harsh recriminations on both sides in its wake. Late on Sunday, Sophie voices her real fear: "'It's what's behind it [all] that bothers me.'" When Otto, who has already accused Sophie of relying on "lunatic logic," answers that they've had "a few bad days," that Charlie hadn't murdered him, the farmhouse was still standing, the Negro man didn't kill them, and Sophie is surely notrabid, Sophie articulates the existential hypothesis that is her ultimate cri de coeur: "'But, by extension, everything you say could have come true! One more step, one more minute—'" There, on the highway back to the city, the abyss yawns. Plot and narrative suspense have metamorphosed—metastasized—into cosmic philosophical gridlock.

The economy of Fox's prose in Desperate Characters is magisterial. Always a succinctly descriptive writer, here Fox uses metaphors and similes sparingly but indelibly. A boy at a party has frizzy hair that "shot off in all directions, like a pubic St. Catherine's wheel." A man on the street, gazing into a sewer, "had the stunned immobility of a displaced person who had come as far as he could without further instruction." A professor Sophie knows has "a hand that looked as soft as a glove full of water." And Fox can delight in malicious caricature. At the hospital the Bentwoods finally go to for Sophie's wound, she spots a nurse with "a face that looked as if it had been drawn by a child with a pink crayon." Sometimes these observations relieve the novel's tension, sometimes they compound it. But they always vivify a time and place with the unpredictability of a discrete moment.

The formal exactitude of Desperate Characters—its events can be charted hour by hour—has a parallel in Otto's profound preoccupation with order. Otto is physically disgusted by debris and messiness. The garbage lining the streets in his neighborhood is like a moral affront to him. He is repulsed by "youths," with their unkempt appearance and careless use of the language. Conservative to the point of cultural anachronism, his reference points are all outdated: Fredric March, Evelyn Venable, Paul Muni. Charlie Russel, his only real friend and a man he once admired for his spontaneity, he now damns as a force for disorder, a hypocritical renegade. (Fox gives us Charlie's side as well, and it too is credible.) Otto is so maddeningly sure of himself, or so determined to give that appearance, that Sophie erupts, "'For God's sake—be a little uncertain!'" She has a more artistic temperament and looks for coherence (sequence, George might say) in literature, particularly nineteenth-century French novels. Her thirst is more for comfort and escape, and though he does not know it, she has been unfaithful to Otto.

Theirs is a more intimate marriage than George and Emma's, but Otto and Sophie are on the edge of implosion. The quiet desperation of these two lives—it is Charlie who invokes Thoreau's maxim—is, finally, like the absence of an immune system. In the hospital E.R., Sophie thinks, "I have no pride, no resources, no religion, nothing." (Indeed, religion is an unimaginable consolation in the lives of Fox characters.) Before leaving Long Island, Otto announces, "'I wish someone would tell me how I can live.'" Sophie has no useful reply. Earlier in the novel, listening to Otto rant against Charlie, she thinks that he is speaking thoughtlessly, that "he didn't believe much in the efficacy of words which were, after all, only for what could be said." What cannot be said, what cannot be seen, makes Otto and Sophie the terrified victims of the unknown that they are. And where can they turn but within? Anticipating implosion is the final rush of suspense in Desperate Characters, and it is no surprise that when it comes it is a small, domestic act of wordless ferocity.

This novel, which was filmed in 1971, is theatrical in its armature and has the stark, emotionally nuanced drama of a play by Edward Albee—say, A Delicate Balance, in which Agnes and Tobias, who seem to be waiting for madness, are close counterparts to Sophie and Otto. There is a confined, closeted feeling about the book, as though the characters were stage-bound. Wherever they go, they are soon back in that Brooklyn brownstone, a contrived fortress in which they seem to do little but wait—for the cat to return, the phone to ring, their lives to resonate with more than literature and legalities. Where George Mecklin is in search of personality, of something that will make him more than a business suit or a pumpkin head, Otto Bentwood desperately needs to break out of the rigid skin he has defensively fashioned for himself. Outwardly he is all inflexible judgment, inside he is psychically crumbling. And Sophie? For all her fears, she is the stronger one, and the one who listens. She can strike out, can think, "I am equal to what is outside." The delicate balance "between the quiet, rather vacant…days she spent in the house, and those portents that lit up the dark at the edges of her own existence" is one she might, somehow, be able to maintain.

• • •

Paula Fox's fourth novel, The Widow's Children, is the least analyzable and, to my mind, most emotionally satisfying of all her books. While its predecessors are remarkably free of dogma and cant, and while there isn't a whiff of agenda in them, they are novels redolent of ideas. Sartre, understanding Otto's nausea, would be right at home reading Desperate Characters. The old notions of culture and anarchy—not to mention moral stalemate, political impotence, personal responsibility, and the class war—are given subtle, pungent re-examination in Fox's first two triumphs.The Widow's Children touches lightly on a few of these matters, often with wicked wit, but it's on an altogether different plane of the imagination. It's both more buoyant and more down-to-earth. The pointed symbolism and the freighted imagery of the Bentwoods' world have been jettisoned. Only a slender thread of suspense (will Clara be told of her grandmother's death?) courses through the story. There is only a little more plot than there is in Woolf's The Waves, and, like The Waves, the swells and falls issue from an ensemble of endlessly interesting people—thinking about each other, reacting to each other, talking to (and arguing with) each other, trying to connect or to forsake connection. Because most of these people are related, it's also a novel about family, and that Pandora's box of rampant emotions. In bursts of energy, invention, absurdity, and passion, Fox lets those emotions fly out and injure or assuage where they will.

Though more leisurely in its rhythms than Desperate Characters,The Widow's Children is even more compressed in time. Everything transpires between the evening of one day and the afternoon of the next, about the same number of hours as in Mrs. Dalloway. The first third of the book occurs almost entirely in a Manhattan hotel room, where five people have met for cocktails. The festivities—it's a bon voyage party—continue at a restaurant close by. There are then scenes in the apartments of three of these characters, and the introduction of another character. The novel concludes in a cemetery near Queens, at a funeral, with all six characters present and few, if any, of the tangled affections and hostilities among them resolved.

It is a varied cast, full of foils and sharply disparate sensibilities. Indeed, almost everyone is a foil to the flamboyant, clever, reckless, outrageous Laura Maldonada, whose vivacity is both allure and weapon. Laura and her heavy-drinking husband, Desmond Clapper, are about to embark on a trip to Africa. But on the afternoon before their farewell party, Laura has learned that her elderly mother Alma has died in a nursing home. She will keep this news from everyone who comes for "Drinks" (the title of the long, virtuoso first chapter) and dinner, including her diffident twenty-something daughter, Clara; her ne'er-do-well homosexual brother, Carlos; and her adoring old friend, the publisher Peter Rice. Alternately spouting invective and endearments—her ex-husband once pronounced her "against reason itself"—Laura won't let anyone off the conversational (or emotional) hook. From her self-absorbed cocoon, and her "burlesque hauteur," she looks out with meretricious cynicism. "'The world is wrecked, my dears,'" she proclaims, while Fox assesses her as "like the personification of calamity," disorder on wheels.

Fox's new memoir reveals strong autobiographical underpinnings in her portraits of many members of the Maldonada family, who are strikingly remininiscent of Fox's mother's family, the de Solas. Alma Maldonada, the matriarch (and the widow of the title), takes Clara to raise just as Fox's own Spanish grandmother did. Carlos, openly gay in the novel, is an affectionate literary double for Fox's more discreet Uncle Leopold. As for Laura, who abandons Clara in childhood and never desires a maternal connection with her, she is as selfish, jealous, and fiercely defensive as Elsie de Sola, who left baby Paula in a foundling hospital and once, during a brief attempt to reunite the family, told her husband "Either she goes or I go." Whether Fox was exorcising Elsie in writing the novel or not, she used her to create, in Laura, her most redoubtable character.

Both families, real and fictional, are—dreaded word—dysfunctional. (This fact is brought into even sharper focus once we meet Laura and Carlos's brother Eugenio, an enigmatic travel agent who tells Peter "in my family we could never do anything but imitate. We never knew.") Clara, who's in a limbo of identity consciousness, wants to dissociate herself from the Maldonadas, with their "profound spiritual indolence," their "posture of aloofness…[that] was a quality of contempt." She mostly despises her fractured heritage. But it is not just these familial frictions and grievances that make Laura and Carlos (who quarrel constantly), Eugenio and Clara, so compelling. Rather it is what George Mecklin might call their individual substantiality, their "mystery of authority," and their inability to escape from the past and whatever destinies—even the ones they have designed for themselves—that have formed and imprisoned them. In the title they are called "children," and they are still in the process of growing up.

Ironically, it is Laura, with her dismissive manner, anti-Semitism, and racism (she blithely refers to "niggers" and "coon[s]"), who may be the most caged of all. We do not fully enter her mind until more than halfway through the novel, but when we do we are cast into a whirlwind. In a frenzy of unprovoked animus, and after fleeing the party at the restaurant, Laura thinks of Peter, her most loyal partisan, as "an insect husk, the goddamned vampire sucking her life away, that bloodless Christian sewing machine with his intolerable daintiness." Clara is a girl of "idiot fearfulness," Desmond "thick-witted," Carlos "debauched." But it is self-loathing she is masking with such poisoned epithets. And she, who, like the other Maldonadas, so often thinks of people in animal terms, ends by feeling cut off from speech, longing for the "utter quietness of animal being, that slow sinking into the eternal present that was animal sensibility." She is crushingly tired of being Laura and of the strain of keeping up her own act. In her wish for union with lions—it would be lions, not cats—she is most human.

This climax is followed by an unexpected piece of authorial strategy. For the rest of the novel our guide is outside the tumultuous Maldonada family. It is Peter, witness and observer, who has loved Laura because "she was ruled by impulse, he, by constraint." This dialectic—with Carlos and Laura on one side, Peter and Eugenio on the other, Clara in the middle—is central to the novel's journey into personality. Peter and the Maldonada siblings are ultimately beyond change now, but Clara is still making crucial choices, looking outside as well as within. In the book's first part she has been fascinated, bewildered, and beleaguered by her mother; in its final sections she is morally and emotionally confronted by Peter. He has been enjoined by the capricious Laura to deliver the news of Alma's death to Carlos and Eugenio—but not to Clara ("'She wouldn't be interested'"). As we go with him through his rounds we discover that he too has been blistered by family relations, that he is celibate and alone, that he is sustained by an early, inviolate memory of Laura that recalls Jay Gatsby's romanticizing of Daisy. In his pivotal late scene with Clara, as the two face what Clara calls their "spooks," Peter becomes the most sympathetic of all the characters in these books. Fox never works at creating sympathy for a character—that is crucial to her steely integrity as a writer—but Peter has a unique claim. Perhaps it's that his weaknesses (for he is weak) are more endearing. Perhaps it's that he understands that every strong emotion passes, and when it comes to the nuances in human relations, truths are of short duration: "He knew how transient…dramatic summations could be, surging up with what seems to be all the truth of a thing, falling away as a great wave falls, into the trough of daily life and its unthinking motion." He is also the man in these intractably unsentimental novels who speaks most wisely about love. "'There's more to love than love,'" he says to Clara, who asks, "'What else is there?'" His reply: "'Well, there's thought.'"

• • •

There is great uncertainty in the fiction of Paula Fox. There is doubt and fear and sometimes paralyzing anxiety. There are no bromides, no platitudes, no clichés. Religion, patriotism, the consolations of philosophy—those things so many people have turned to in recent months—are not accessible to the people she writes about in these books. Love is elusive and problematic, risky, poorly scaffolded. Souls are half-empty, with minds unsure of what it could ever take to fill them. Rocks hurtle through windows, the phone rings in the middle of the night. Boys with the features of wooden saints are pointlessly killed. Mothers reject daughters out of an irrationally defined selfishness. "'I'm desperate!'" Charlie Russel shrieks. "'He's desperate!'" Otto Bentwood shouts back, at the end of his own tether. And Charlie's voice continues to shriek through the phone, "on and on like gas leaking from a pipe."

Readers in these desperate times may not find much comfort in Paula Fox. She does not offer ease or solace. But she offers what Peter Rice says is more valuable: thought. That, with her other gifts, should ensure her reputation; Fox rediscovered should become Fox canonical.