“A towering landmark of postwar Realism. . . . A sustained work of prose so lucid and fine it seems less written than carved.” — David Foster WallaceOtto and Sophie Bentwood live childless in a renovated Brooklyn brownstone. The complete works of Goethe line their bookshelf, their stainless-steel kitchen is newly installed, and their Mercedes is parked curbside. But after Sophie is bitten on the hand while trying to feed a half-starved neighborhood cat, a series of small and ominous disasters begin to plague their lives. The fault lines of their marriage are revealed — echoing the fractures of society around them, slowly wrenching itself apart. First published in 1970 to wide acclaim, Desperate Characters stands as one of the most dazzling and rigorous examples of the storyteller’s craft in postwar American literature — a novel that, according to Irving Howe, ranks with “Billy Budd, The Great Gatsby, Miss Lonelyhearts, and Seize the Day.” “Desperate Characters is, simply, a perfect short novel. A few characters, a small stretch of time; setting and action tightly confined — and yet, as in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, everything crucial within our souls bared.” — Andrea Barrett “This perfect novel about pain is as clear, and as wholly believable, and as healing, as a fever dream.” — Frederick Busch “Brilliant. . . . [Fox] is one of the most attractive writers to come our way in a long, long time.” — The New Yorker Introduced by Jonathan Franzen, one of Granta’s Twenty Best Young American Novelists
Meet the Bentwoods, Sophie and Otto, “both just over forty,” living in Brooklyn sometime in the ’60s with neither hope nor children to encourage them to work on their suffocating marriage. Such are the central subjects of Paula Fox’s enthralling Desperate Characters, first published to much acclaim in 1970. The novel’s action unfolds in a single weekend, and includes Otto’s torturous breakup with his longtime business partner, Charlie, and a visit the Bentwoods make to their country home, which they find vandalized. Everything pivots around an occurrence so ordinary as to make us marvel at the power it wields under Fox’s brilliant pressure: a cat bite. Despite Otto’s protests, Sophie puts out a dish for a stray that roams the Bentwoods’ neighborhood–an area which is also home to enormous poverty, and in which they, in their renovated townhouse, sit like distant royalty. The cat sinks its teeth into her hand and instantly we are plunged into the heart of what plagues every aspect of this couple’s lives: the threat of rabies. Where the cat is concerned, it’s literal rabies, but the book is also steeped in the sense that a kind of social rabies lurks just outside the Bentwoods’ and indeed the whole world’s door. As Sophie suddenly realizes at one point: “Ticking away inside the carapace of ordinary life and its sketchy agreements was anarchy.” Throughout Fox’s gorgeously crafted, unflinching portrait of a dying marriage and a country at war with itself, the Bentwoods fight the desire to self-destruct like everything around them. At one point, Otto screams at Sophie: “What in God’s name do you want? Do you want Charlie to murder me? Do you wish the farmhouse had been burned down?… Do you want to be rabid?” She doesn’t, of course, but in a certain way, that outcome makes sense. “‘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.” How fortunate and rare to discover such a perfect articulation of the human condition. –Melanie Rehak
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