29 November 2008

And now I'm desperate...

The biggest advantage to taking something to book club or some other kind of group reading session is that you can take your novel, with its problems, to a readymade group of people who have (probably) all read it and say, "I have to know what you think of X." Paula Fox's DESPERATE CHARACTERS fit that bill, and I feel unable to dig into a critique of this book, since it has received a fair amount of critical adulation, before I say: Maybe I just didn't see it. 

I guess it's Disappointments Week on WORMBOOK (which seems wrong, because there's nothing disappointing about vacation!) but when Jonathan Franzen throws his weight behind a book, says it's better than anything else of his time, even devote an entire essay in his collection HOW TO BE ALONE to how underappreciated it is, I expect fireworks. Perhaps my expectations for this slim novel about a Brooklyn couple watching their marriage fall apart over a dreary weekend were indeed outsized, but it just didn't make an impression on me. In fact, most of the time I was distracted by what I saw as the characters' obsession with race -- mentioning a guest at a party is "a Negro," but nothing else about him. 

Anyway, in the absence of a reading buddy I turn to the Internet. Reading for Writers praises the novel's plotting, in that the book is framed by a bite the wife gets from a stray cat while not letting that occupy the foreground, and suggests the couple's bewilderment and impoliteness are the reactions of a couple in the '60s who feel themselves being left behind by the culture. I think my favorite scene in the book, though it derived its energy largely from a caricature, depicted the couple, Sophie and Otto, going to a party where they meet people who make them feel stodgy and out of it. 

Reading Matters points out that Sophie and Otto's relationship is doomed and was so long before the stray cat showed up (the cat itself being an engine of disagreement; Sophie wants to feed it, Otto wants to leave it alone). Still, since we largely follow Sophie's perspective, and she has done certain things to damage the marriage, I found it difficult to see any nuance in that portrayal; her cruelty overshadowed it for me. 

Have you read DESPERATE CHARACTERS? Want to explain to me why I feel so left out in the cold? I would love to know. My reaction was more like The Occasional Review's; while there were scenes I appreciated briefly, the more I thought about them the more they fell apart for me. (Also, has there ever been another book or movie with a motif of an injury someone refuses to get looked at? Maybe I'm going crazy, but I'm certain there is one.) 


Wade Garrett said...

I haven't read it, but David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Lethem are both on record as being big fans of Desperate Characters. It would be rare for three authors I like as much as Franzen, Lethem and Wallace to agree on a book's merits and for me to dislike it. I should check it out.

Ellen said...

I'm not an expert on either Foster Wallace or Lethem by a long shot but I did see that they both praised it (I believe Francine Prose is a fan as well). I would never dissuade anyone from reading this book, in fact I would love to read what you say about it.