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Second Coming

Paula Fox's "Desperate Characters," reissued after 28 years, hardly feels dated -- one definition of great literature.

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Writers nowadays tend to leave no heroine unhealed; Fox, to her credit, leaves her characters desperate.  

Desperate Characters
BY PAULA FOX
W.W. Norton; 176 pages; $12

One of the saddest things about publishing is how quickly it ages what it touches. The frenzy involved in getting books on shelves, and in putting the word out that they're there, moves at a speed that is not the speed of writing, let alone of reading. And then it's over -- yesterday's hot title, so long-awaited and so loudly touted, as stale on the plate as yesterday's hot lunch. Novels intended to seize the moment, filled with the names of hip nightspots and celebrities, cool the fastest, dead before they've lived. Fortunately, the Internet offers hope, the prospect of an electronic culture vault where in-print and out-of-print are meaningless and books can outlast the latest footwear craze, attracting, over time, their natural audiences and not just their presold demographic constituencies. But until that happens, the only antidote for premature literary decomposition is attentive reprinting, resurrection by paperback.

Paula Fox's short, sharp novel Desperate Characters, originally published in 1970, deserves such a second coming more than most books, and because of a certain fierce affection for it among a band of smart young tastemakers, its imminent reissue may trump its first one. With an awestruck introduction by Jonathan Franzen and a headlining blurb from David Foster Wallace -- the IQ-busting dynamic duo of the new intelligentsia -- a book that requires more time to grow on readers than the lit-crit news cycle allows for is rising again from publishing's pulpy mass grave. And thankfully, the hook this time is no hook. Fox is alive and writing (in Brooklyn), and none of the "issues" her novel touches on have suddenly taken on morning-show relevance. The book's re-emergence, believe it or not, is pegged to nothing but its own vitality.

The title may bring to mind an airport thriller, chockablock with lingerie and intrigue, but Desperate Characters is a quiet book, the loudest note it strikes the muffled scream of upper-middle-class spiritual entombment. It's an updated brownstone with mice inside the walls patiently nibbling their way into the wiring. The residents are Sophie and Otto Bentwood, a married, childless pair of urban pioneers who've staked their tasteful, antiquey, book-lined claim on a piece of marginal Brooklyn real estate just across the street from purgatory. Gassy infants cry out in the night, drunks throw up into the gutter, and rusting buses shed parts while turning corners. Giuliani's chrome metropolis is a dream; the city is still a bundle of ragged edges. One night, one of them catches Sophie's soft skin in the form of a feral cat that nips her hand, inflicting a wound that festers in spreading circles.

The story has a period, the high-Dick Cavett era, when therapists were still called analysts, parties were all about having conversations, and faithful New York Review of Books subscribers wore their jewels on the outside of their turtlenecks. Revolution itself is no longer in the air, quite, but talk of revolution lingers powerfully. Everyone either smokes or has just quit. Because Fox sets the scene with a minimum of props, though (a campaign poster that apparently shows George Wallace is the only specific time stamp), readers are free to fill in from their own memories and private reservoirs of associations. What Fox supplies is the basic palette: gray. The gray of hungover faces, of late-spring skies, of morning-after ashtrays. If that sounds bleak, well, it is and it isn't, much like Sophie and Otto's marriage, which somehow comes off as both brittle and sustaining. What Fox, an exacting colorist, does with gray, most SoHo designers wish that they could do.

As a writer, Fox is all sensitive, staring eyeball. Her images break the flesh. They scratch the retina: "The woman's black chamber-pot hat seemed to rise slightly above her head. Her mouth snapped shut as if she'd bitten off a thread." Fox lays the bricks of her paragraphs with precision and doesn't trowel in much interpretation between them, which doesn't make her a minimalist, just careful. She picks up and uses pieces of daily life that most writers would leave lying on the ground, assuming that they could spot them in the first place. Here is how Sophie remembers her own mood the night of her first encounter with a publisher who will later become her lover: "Sophie had met him the evening she and Otto had gone to see the French National Theater's production of Andromache. She had been aware of a special animation in herself attributed with some truth by Otto to the fact that he would have to wear earphones for the English translation while she could sit there in her bilingual authority." Observations like this make the book -- a stream of seemingly throwaway epiphanies that breed in the reader an almost painful alertness. Fox's prose hurts. It's written on the nerves. It's a good hurt, though, like using a fresh, dry washcloth on a sleep-numbed face.

Maybe it's the case of rabies that Sophie fears she's contracted from the cat bite, but something makes her the perfect human camera, focused to a hallucinatory clarity while giving off a dim internal whirring sound. The story consumes just three days of an existence whose months and years, one feels, tend to run together. What's different about this long weekend, though, is the sudden smelting of free-form irritation into a singular nugget of panic. Fox gives Sophie the perfect professional background for someone whose malaise is turning septic: She's a translator of important-sounding literature who lately can't find anything worth translating. Otto, the constipated old curmudgeon in the couple's ongoing George-and-Gracie routine, is facing a professional crisis himself, but one that has thickened his skin instead of thinning it. He's just parted ways with the partner in his legal practice, a liberal named Charlie who champions the downtrodden more out of surplus narcissism than out of real concern. His motives, like those of the story's other people, are fundamentally lost to him, however, and even though almost all of the characters in the book spend their dialogue analyzing the others, none of them arrive at any solid conclusions about themselves or anyone else. Human identity isn't fixed with Fox; it's mostly just talk, and round and round it goes. When Sophie has finally had enough, and snaps, the charge she hurls at Otto affirms this point: "For God's sake -- be a little uncertain!"

What's been missing from fiction since the novel was published (and the quality that makes one grateful it's resurfaced) is just this scrupulous, closely wrought uncertainty. Once, it was enough to make a Sophie -- dreamy, acute, dissatisfied yet complacent. Now, though, most writers would need to heal her, too. There would be revelations, lessons, challenges, a sincere application of the latest quackery. But Fox leaves Sophie at her most agitated -- that moment that just precedes the diagnosis. The moment that, let's be honest, never ends.


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