Paula Fox
Paula Fox; drawing by David Levine

The Widow’s Children, Paula Fox’s eerily intense 1976 novel about a nasty family evening, begins with a scene of arming for battle. Clara Hansen, a twenty-nine-year-old single woman in New York City, is getting ready for a gathering in the hotel room of her mother, Laura Maldonada, a monstrously caustic aging Spanish beauty about to embark on a cruise to Africa with her rich, boozy second husband. Normally Clara dresses “defensively,” but tonight she chooses a silk gown, a gauntlet thrown down. Halfway through cocktails, Laura grabs the hem with her clawlike hands and her face freezes in judgment at the label, Christian Dior. Mother and daughter have battled, quietly, over clothes before. Clara’s Uncle Eugenio, absent from this demented dinner party, is a collector of rich old ladies, one of whom died in a tower suite at the old Ritz and left Clara a mysterious trunk: perfumed things from Worth, “chiffon embroidered with silver thread, sachets, a small fur wrap, unworn lingerie covered with lace.” But Laura had taken them for herself since, she tells Clara, they “would not have suited your age”—too luxurious, and too old-fashioned.

Later at dinner, looking around the restaurant, the men “so odd with their inflated haircombs, vaguely bovine, so dandified,” Clara thinks to herself there is something “insipid, hollow in all this dressing.” But she herself is costumed for an entrance in a tightly structured drama that reads like a cross between No Exit and All About Eve, compressed by the iron Aristotelian unities of time and place into a work of art so singular as to be almost beyond explication. Clara had “read the ancient Greeks during the one year she’d gone to college, and concluded that the house of Atreus was, and always had been, full of boarders like herself.” A child who “thieved her way into life” after her mother’s four abortions, abandoned to caretakers immediately after birth, Clara is an outsider in the company of her own family, a “spirit so bewildered she dared not lose track of the dullest conversation lest she miss some clue that would explain her own condition to herself.”

But the conversation in a Paula Fox novel is never dull, and the scenes here, labeled mostly according to their settings (“Drinks,” “Corridor,” “Restaurant”) crackle with insult and insight that pin the characters to a wall like the blades of a knifethrower. Peter Rice, a discontented publisher with a masochistic attachment to Laura, is the evening’s other designated outsider, “a middle-aged man on a moral bender that costs him nothing.” He is the Maldonadas’ audience, but he is also, as the title of the final chapter makes clear, a messenger, assigned to spread the news that Laura has kept from the others all evening—that her elderly mother, an Iberian child bride whisked to Cuba at age sixteen, only to end up in a squalid house in Queens after the revolution of 1933, has finally died. Laura’s silence is inexplicable, and indeed Fox doesn’t try to explain it. She’s interested less in psychology than in the deforming straitjacket of character. Though they move among the meticulously described details of our world, these characters emerge not from families or schools or houses with numbered addresses but from some primeval forest of half-human, half-mythical beasts.

Now, with the recent appearance of Borrowed Finery, Fox’s remarkable memoir, we see that these implausible characters in fact come from the realm of the proverbial truth stranger than fiction. The Widow’s Children shares many of the elements of Fox’s own history: the baby abandoned by a monstrously vain, manipulative mother and charming drunkard father; the lost family plantation in Cuba; the Spanish grandmother and bachelor uncles; the florid anti-Semitism that papers over rumors of the family’s Jewish ancestry; the hurled glassware; even that purloined trunk of clothes from Worth, left to Paula by a distant relative who dies alone in her luxury suite. But unlike the emotionally extravagant reimaginings of the novel, which drifts freely among the various characters’ thoughts, Fox’s terse paragraphs seem to contain only what was truly remembered, a succession of barely connected episodes encased in the hard amber of indelible image, and long since absorbed into the mind’s eye.

Borrowed Finery restores the memoir of atrocious American girlhood, a genre so tattered in recent years by garrulous self-justification and parental atrocities offered at garage-sale prices, to a condition of dignity and elegance. If the daughter had it bad, Fox knows just how much the writer has it good. Though Fox is writing about herself, she’s not interested in making herself a sympathetic character, or indeed presenting herself as much of a character at all. (Like her memoir, Fox’s novels—remarkable for their eccentric, often blackly funny minor characters and odd anecdotes heard on the wing—are often grounded in the consciousness of outsiders or quiet watchers.) It’s hard to imagine Fox boasting, as Mary McCarthy, another mercilessly acid novelist who spent her childhood as an orphan shuttled between caretakers, does in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, that a teacher once declared her to be just like Lord Byron, “brilliant, but unsound.” When the artist William Zorach, whom Fox studied with at the Art Students’ League, intones that she has “a wild talent,” it’s repeated only as a joke—on Zorach, and on herself.


Family, someone remarks in The Widow’s Children, “is a jigsaw of misery fitting together perfectly.” Fox’s own chaotic early life, described mostly in short, intensely imagistic paragraphs, is a story of outrageous characters and scarcely believable scraps of experience that aren’t forced to add up. A few days after her birth in 1923, Paula was abandoned at an orphanage. Eventually she went to live with a kindly minister in Balmville, New York, an edenic Hudson Valley town of steepled white churches and old stone houses and cleansing summer storms. The minister, “Uncle Elwood,” is a kindly man, author of parish histories and a newspaper column called “Little-Known Facts about Well-Known People.” He gives Paula books and takes her to visit Revolutionary sites (he quotes to her George Washington’s alleged deathbed question, “Is it well with the child?”), and teaches her the implicit lesson “that everything counted and that a word spoken as meant contained a mysterious energy that could awaken thought and feeling in both speaker and listener.” Her father, Paul, a Hollywood screenwriter (Graham Greene once called his Last Train from Madrid “the worst movie I ever saw”), sends money and makes occasional barnstorming visits. Her mother, the awful Elsie, is an aspiring actress who mostly appears here as if she’s auditioning for the part of Medea. “Either she goes or I do,” Elsie tells Paul at one point. As Fox writes, “I sensed that if she could have hidden the act, she would have killed me.”

At age five, Paula goes to Hollywood to live with her parents. Within days she’s back in the hands of rescuers, the “fire brigade that passed me along from person to person until I was safe,” from California’s Central Valley to Jacksonville to a plantation in Cuba where her maternal grandmother is the servant of a rich old cousin, and back to that smelly house in Queens, where her parents drop in, “handsome as movie stars,” and whisk her to strange parties in city apartments. Eventually they divorce and Paula goes to live with her father and his new wife in New Hampshire. She’s kicked out of school because of her father’s alcoholism, goes to art school in New York, finishing school in Montreal, then, through a “miracle” and more of her father’s lies, Juilliard. “My life was incoherent to me,” Fox writes. “I felt it quivering, spitting out broken teeth.”

For no apparent reason, she’s sent back to California in the care of a middle-aged woman friend of her father’s, an alcoholic reduced to playing the Ouija board “to encourage in her a sense that she had a fate.” Paula marries a sailor in the merchant marine who soon ships out for Murmansk. There are jobs as a wardrobe girl on movies, magician’s assistant, dance instructor, worker in a Mexican ceramic factory, salesgirl in a seedy clothing shop; bull sessions with her husband’s Communist friends and fleeting encounters, no big deal, with Harpo Marx, Orson Welles, John Barrymore. She dances for an hour with John Wayne and crashes a party at the Garden of Allah, where Stella Adler gives her a suit (one of the many castoffs that give the memoir its title and central conceit). And even on the last page there is no hint, except in the dazzling clarity of the telling, of what transformed this confused young woman with a walk-on part in her own life into a belatedly recognized master of postwar American fiction.

Fox’s six novels, rescued from out-of-print oblivion in recent years through the enthusiasm of such younger writers as Jonathan Franzen, Andrea Barrett, and Jonathan Lethem, often center on the theme of lost children and the mostly disastrous salvage operations of adults with none of their own. Her three short novels of the late Sixties and early Seventies—Poor George, Desperate Characters, and The Widow’s Children—are potent distillations of the period, though the characters seem almost mummified in the faded trappings of an older, dying order.* Like that mysterious trunk from Worth, Fox’s settings are often too luxurious, too old-fashioned, only with some unnerving detail poking through that is very much of its age, like a button reading “Fuck Housework” worn by a passer-by on a fur coat over evening clothes in The Widow’s Children.


Fox’s milieu is the bourgeois intellectual domestic world, where the living room is seen as the besieged outpost of a corrupt and exhausted civilization, whether it’s cluttered with the Aztec fetishes, Japanese baskets, and other bric-a-brac of a schoolteacher clinging to shabby respectability, or the suffocating upholstered tastefulness of hip shrinks and bitter Trotskyite professors and disillusioned publishers of literary gardening books. Her tightly orchestrated scenes of bitterly funny, epigrammatic dialogue unfold mostly in meticulously furnished interiors, and usually tend toward some serious broken crockery. If there’s a teapot on the table, chances are it’s going to be smashed by the last chapter.

Poor George (1967), Fox’s first novel, is a story of marital implosion that takes place against a backdrop of chatter about disturbed children and juvenile delinquents. George Mecklin is a bored English teacher at a private high school in New York City. He has come to hate his grade-grubbing students, with their sense of entitlement and regurgitated essays written in “fat, self-admiring letters.” He lives with his resentful librarian wife, Emma, in a Hudson Valley enclave where there are still deer and foxes in the woods, and also low talk around town about more dangerous human predators. George and Emma have some romantic dinners that often shade into argument and cold, panicked sex, but mostly they’re waiting to stop talking about things so they can stop thinking about them too. George reads a lot, “but usually when Emma was in the room. If she left, his attention wavered.” He’s a hollow man, bored and featureless—“like a pumpkin waiting to have a face carved on it,” says his sister, or a “piece of office furniture.” Fox writes brilliant put-downs, but she doesn’t give George any good lines.

One day George comes home to find a teenage boy in his kitchen, a high school dropout named Ernest, a hard case with a face like “those wooden saints in cathedral niches.” George decides to take him on as a project, and soon Ernest is spending afternoons on the couch, reading Macbeth, Conrad, books with titles like Heritage of the Past. There are afternoon trips to the Metropolitan Museum and arguments about stolen radios, and questions unanticipated in George’s lesson plan: “Where do people get money? Where, how?… Tool kits, shiny, don’t they use them? Electric stuff, something to do everything with…. Jesus, how do they get it?” When Ernest tells George about more intimate things he has seen through the neighbors’ windows, the gossip takes on the air of vandalism, the “scenes…stripped of humanity, like the scrawled graffiti in public places.” At night George lies next to Emma “ashamed…on his side, a knife on edge.” There’s a strong homoerotic undercurrent in George’s arrangement with Ernest, and periodic talk of George and Emma having a child. “How?” she asks. “By parthenogenesis?”

When the tension, sexual and otherwise, finally explodes in an act of contemptuous violence, it comes across as Ernest’s best effort at literary and social criticism. “Learning for enlightenment and pleasure,” as one of his fellow teachers tells George, “is entirely different from arming for battle.” Culture, as often in Fox’s novels, is depicted as its own kind of social pathology, a growth that eventually distracts the flow of blood and leads to a kind of faintness. When he’s not trying to explain the Greek polis to Ernest, George is the straight man in a series of grimly hilarious exchanges with a social circle of overeducated grotesques: the alcoholic actor’s wife next door given to vatic one-liners and teacups thrown out the window like rescue notes; a radio host with a program called “Happy People” and a tendency to launch into racist diatribes; a fellow teacher, an embittered, nihilistic hipster, who pursues “inaction painting” (“I suffer from this greediness with purple”) when he’s not attempting to strangle colleagues who circulate student petitions against US Cuba policy. “You mistake literacy for enlightenment,” this colleague tells George near the close of the book, during a nocturnal crawl through Greenwich Village, which ends in George’s senseless shooting by a confused neighbor. As so often in Fox, literacy is the flipside of the characters’ utter inability to read themselves.

In the exhilarating Desperate Characters (1970), Fox’s best-known novel, the delinquency has metastasized into something more menacing and all-pervasive, a creeping societal breakdown that threatens clean glass windows, property values, possibly even civilization itself. Otto and Sophie Bentwood are urban pioneers living in an elegantly restored brownstone on a semi-squalid Brooklyn block, with a complete Goethe and “two shelves of French poets” in the drawing room. Sophie, just past forty, is an occasional translator who can’t get interested in the novel she’s been given to work on. Otto is a prosperous lawyer who has just broken with his longtime partner, a sometime defender of indigent clients who is suddenly overwhelmed by what’s either an attack of radical conscience or a severe nervous collapse. Otto is the kind of man, Sophie remarks, who “doesn’t think about people for more than two minutes at a time, then by some supernatural agency presumes to arrive at total insight.” Sophie, for her part, fears she’s “sliding effortlessly toward a sickly dependence on bodily comfort.” Even taking a taxi into the city is a self-indulgence, “made more obnoxious by the fact that she could afford one.”

In the opening scene, Sophie ignores Otto’s warning and feeds a starving cat that appears on their stoop. She’s bitten, and spends the rest of the novel’s two days wandering from one pointless and vaguely ominous social interaction to another, trying not to think about what’s happening. She doesn’t want to kill the cat to have it tested, and may not want rabies shots in the belly either. The cat embodies the forces threatening a home invasion, the passers-by who throw rocks through the windows, defecate on the street, ring the doorbell in the middle of the night with strange stories and pleas for a $20 loan. But the threat of sickness is emblematic of Sophie’s desire to break out of the house, to become rabid and justifiably desperate, like the cat or the “slum people” who persist behind a few rag-covered windows on their block, or their friends’ own hippie children, who wander through the novel’s cocktail party (Fox writes brilliant parties you’re grateful not to have been invited to) like Martians subdued with tranquilizer guns. Sophie has had two miscarriages (“I’ve got a uterus like a pinball machine,” she says). At the very end of the novel, driving back to the city after discovering that their country house has been smashed up by vandals, Otto suggests that maybe they should “try to think about adopting a child again.” But childlessness isn’t a clue that unlocks the novel’s coiled mystery. It’s just the latest desperate explanation the Bentwoods put forward for the nameless thing that afflicts them.

Like Poor George, Desperate Characters is an unsettling portrait of its period, though one that succeeds more by catching the pervasive mood that seeps into mundane domestic events than by referring to larger public ones. It’s 1968, but the only overt marker is “the face of an Alabama presidential candidate,” glimpsed along the wastes of the Brooklyn–Queens Expressway, that stares “with sooty dead eyes from his campaign poster,…pathology calling tenderly to pathology” (an uncharacteristically heavy-handed authorial aside, reminiscent of the billboard eyes of T.J. Eckleberg looming over another Long Island dead zone in The Great Gatsby). “There was a siege going on,” Sophie tells herself at the end of the novel as she looks out on the quiet street, after finally exploding into invective at a friend chattering inanely on the other end of the phone line. “It had been going on for a long time, but the besieged themselves were the last to take it seriously. Hosing vomit off the sidewalk was only a temporary measure, like a good intention. The lines were tightening…but it was almost impossible to know where the lines were.”

For all its unrelenting grimness, Desperate Characters is a novel of elegant sentences and very funny dialogue. Sophie and Otto, in their overeducated incomprehension of their own misery, are ultimately as sympathetic as they are unlikable, and they are supported by a cast of memorable minor characters who either take over the scene with long talking jags or simply announce their existence with little more than an indelible phrase—a bespoke-suited party host who carries himself “like a man preceded into a room by acrobats,” a peyote-smoking painter who expounds theories of life “with the calm zealotry of one who has received truths from the sun.”

In an afterword to a 1980 reissue, the critic Irving Howe nominated Desperate Characters, barely 150 pages long, for a place in the canon of great American short novels, from Billy Budd to Gatsby and Miss Lonelyhearts. But strangely, its real companion may be The Crying of Lot 49, another tightly compressed picture, drawn from the opposite coast and the opposite side of the looking glass, of an upper-middle-class woman shocked out of anesthetized complacency and awakened to the encroaching social chaos.

It’s startling to think that Fox’s book, with its claustrophobic universe of three-pound journals that arrive “dead of their own weight” and dim shabby-genteel apartments with “Thirties-stupid” décor, appeared five years after Pynchon’s bug-eyed satirical fantasia of surf bands and postal conspiracies in circuit-board cities injected by hypodermic expressways. Pynchon’s Oedipa Maas imagines herself as a maiden locked in a tower, kept inside by something “magic, anonymous and malignant, visited on her from outside and for no reason at all.” So too with Fox’s Sophie. “God, if I am rabid, I am equal to what is outside,” she finally says to herself with a sense of relief, as if being rabid would erase the border between the plush emptiness of her days and “those portents that lit up the dark at the edge of her existence.” The sets and costumes have changed, but oscillation between the sense of a world that’s meaningless, or too full of meanings, is the same.

The desperation of the title is invoked first by Otto’s wayward law partner, who tells him that Thoreau’s famous line about most men leading lives of quiet desperation is “a prime example of middle-class self-love.” By the end of the book, the word is bursting out of just about everyone’s mouth. But equally important, as so often in Fox, is the notion of character. When they are driving out to their country house, a sudden obscenity-laced tirade from Otto makes Sophie realize that since the cat bite he has been “restraining his character for her sake, as though he had shoved into a closet some disreputable relative whose presence might shatter her.” A few pages later, she recalls the weekend visit of an old friend, a gentle painter, who mocks her for saying her failure to quit smoking was really a “failure of character.” But the novel’s climax, a final domestic smashup, is really an example of character—the Bentwoods’ fate—succeeding all too well, in spite of the plot’s best efforts to push it off its rails. Fox is brilliant at anatomizing the exhausted spirit, but character “development” has no place in her novels. The characters grope their way to the end of their ropes, and she tends to just leave them hanging.

Toward the end of The Widow’s Children, Peter Rice, the self-hating publisher, goes to see Laura’s second brother, Carlos, in the middle of the night with the news of his mother’s death. He also pleads with Carlos that Clara should be told of her grandmother’s death, against Laura’s wishes. “For God’s sake, don’t hide out in your own character—don’t exploit your vices to get out from under!” he shouts at the brother. In the end he’s the one who gets out from under his own and helps Clara crash the old woman’s funeral. There’s the faintest hint in the air of resolution, or at least a shift in the wind, a thing so rare in Fox’s novels that it almost feels like grace.

When Paula Fox’s own grandmother died, she wasn’t told of it. “She wouldn’t have been interested,” Elsie says to one of her brothers, the same line Laura uses in The Widow’s Children. “Perhaps I deserved it,” Fox writes. “But not from the woman who was my mother.”

Paula Fox didn’t see that woman again for thirty-eight years. In the coda to Borrowed Finery, she makes a visit to Nantucket, where the dreadful Elsie is living, just barely, like a captain’s widow, dried out like a piece of laundry, eyes on the horizon. Entering the house, Paula hears “a sound that I told myself, grimly, was a minotaur breathing”—an oxygen machine. Even after fifty years, Elsie—dying of emphysema—can’t bear to hear her husband’s second wife’s name. Paula can’t bring herself to use a toilet her mother has touched and so squats in a field. When the caretakers call later with the inevitable news, Paula responds as though the grief is theirs. “I had lost out on a daughter’s last privilege,” she writes. “I couldn’t mourn my mother.”

But there’s another thing, a lost daughter, given up by Paula when she was twenty-one and living in California. She had tried to get the baby back but it was too late. Years later, they meet in San Francisco and spend four days together in a hotel, trading stories and slipping notes under each other’s doors “like lovers.” “What I had missed all the years of my life,” Fox writes, “was freedom of a certain kind: to speak without fear to a woman in my family.” Her memoir, along with her newly resurrected novels, is like that lost inheritance from the rich old relative: a strange trunk full of evening clothes and silver-threaded secrets and an adamantine wisdom that has found its way back to its rightful owner.

This Issue

April 25, 2002