Novelist Paula Fox, who died last week at age 93, was a Brooklyn writer long before it was fashionable. She lived in the same house in Cobble Hill for decades with her third husband Martin Greenberg, who was an editor at Commentary. Would-be bourgeois life in run-down Brooklyn is the topic of Fox’s best novel, Desperate Characters (1970), which runs a short 156 pages of carved prose so exact that it shames more garrulous books.
Desperate Characters is a novel on the level of achievement of, say, The Great Gatsby, but without the lyricism and glamour of that F. Scott Fitzgerald classic. Fox wrote a handful of novels at such a high peak of invention that they are rather forbidding—you have to get used to the rarefied air of her work. Fox was a great writer, but rarely a popular one, and that’s because she was so totally lacking in cant or obvious reassurance. She told the truth as she saw it, and her point of view could be harshly unforgiving.
Fox had a difficult childhood, which she chronicled in her 2001 memoir Borrowed Finery. Her parents were Fitzgerald-like figures, a boozy writer and his high-living wife, or at least that’s the way they saw themselves. The older that Fox got the more she saw how shabby her own parents were, particularly her hateful mother. She first used her mother as a fictional figure in her novel The Widow’s Children (1976) and then really exposed her in Borrowed Finery. What Fox could not abide, and what she wrote against her whole life, was self-indulgence and falsity. And so of course the many self-indulgent and false people in this world rejected what she was trying to tell them in her books.
Fox endured poverty and bad jobs for many years, which provided the basis for her wildest and most far-ranging and underrated novel, The Western Coast (1972). There is a very romantic scene in that book where the heroine falls in love by small degrees with a man who visits her while she is suffering from a very unromantic ailment: a tapeworm. And there is a small scene of humiliation that has haunted me ever since I read it. The heroine needs money and she poses for some nude photos, and a man next to the photographer is heard saying, “Do something about the nipples.” Fox had a way of capturing a humiliating moment like that in a glancing style that simultaneously makes you feel its full impact while also taking the lofty view that “this doesn’t really matter.” How she was able to do both of these things at once is one of the mysteries of a writing talent as piercing as hers.
Fox made a living as an older woman by writing books for children, some of which proved controversial. She wouldn’t make anything easy for kids, either, and that went double when she found out late in life that the baby girl she had given up for adoption turned out to be the mother of rock star Courtney Love. Fox had only one meeting with Love, and it went very badly. The self-destructive and self-indulgent Love can be seen as an ironic emanation of everything that Fox was so against all of her life.
Fox lived through the Depression and World War II, and women of that generation developed a toughness that is in short supply today. (In a 2012 New York Times interview Fox said, “There have been times in my life when I’ve not had enough food, when I was willing to eat a piece of bread with nothing on it.”) And so Fox developed into a person and an artist who preached that you have to be unflappable in life, no matter what your circumstances or whatever bad things might happen to you.
In her last book, 2011’s News from the World: Stories and Essays, Fox honed her philosophy even further down to its essence: look outside yourself. This connects back to the scene in Desperate Characters where the heroine Sophie realizes that the menace she fears from outside her brownstone is inside of her, too. Sophie has been bitten by a cat, and she fears for her health, but this is what she finally thinks about her situation: “‘God, if I am rabid, I am equal to what is outside,’ she said out loud, and felt an extraordinary relief as though, at last, she’d discovered what it was that could create a balance between the quiet, rather vacant progression of the days she spent in this house, and those portents that lit up the dark at the edge of her own existence.”
These sentences in Desperate Characters changed my life. Whenever I am in a situation that feels frightening or menacing in some way, I usually stop and think what Sophie does: “I am equal to what is outside.” The things that might harm us from the outside are already inside us, and we can use that knowledge to fight when we need to fight. What a relief that is! And so Fox’s work is not entirely hopeless, as some people thought when her books were first published.
Jonathan Franzen, a devoted fan, successfully advocated for Fox’s novels to be brought back into print in the 1990s, and so she was “discovered” at last, but somehow never in a lasting way. When I think of Fox, I link her to James Salter, another very neglected writer who published a handful of beautifully judged books that never quite got him the acclaim he deserved. Both Fox and Salter lived a long time, and they were known as “writer’s writers” who were admired but never sold many books. Literary fashions come and go. When some of the more puffed-up literary reputations capsize as time goes by, a writer like Fox will be waiting to be elevated to where she belongs: at the very top.