Paula Fox Fox, Paula (Vol. 2) - Essay

Fox, Paula (Vol. 2)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Fox, Paula

An American novelist, author of Desperate Characters and The Western Coast, Ms. Fox also writes fiction for children.

Poor George is close to that genre in which American writers have frequently been distinguished: the short novel, which sustains a certain complication of event yet not a full-scale action, which develops through a single narrative tone, and which drives toward its climax with a direct, even ruthless speed. It is characteristic of this kind of fiction that we value it not so much as a faithful or comprehensive version of social reality, but as a compact drama approaching self-containment and achieving its impression through a single thrust of incident. And it is further characteristic of this kind of fiction that in its lucid, almost fanatic economy, it should seem to verge upon—though it never really becomes—allegory….

Poor George seems entirely of the present moment, in the sense that it focuses on the deracination of New York life, the sadness of work that simply drags on and marriages neither good nor bad. Yet what interested me most about the book is that while Miss Fox is entirely caught up with the experience of the contemporary, she is largely free from its cant and bravado.

Irving Howe, "Works of Integrity," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1967 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), March 18, 1967, pp. 25-6.

Poor George seems ordinary WASP; it is, however, the best first novel I've read in quite a long time….

Miss Fox is, perhaps, a little too cold about George, though she stops short of the near-sadistic attitude that so many contemporary novelists display toward their characters. The most important thing about him, however, is that he is real, and so are the other characters who surround him: his wife, Emma; his neighbor, Joe Palladino, a skirt-chasing TV actor who has an affair with George's sister; Joe's alcoholic wife, Martha; Walling, an eccentric schoolteacher colleague of George's. Yet Miss Fox is wholly successful in transmuting this somewhat gross material. She writes with great accuracy and control in a prose whose symbolism is always unobtrusive. Whether Miss Fox will bring off this kind of success a second time remains to be seen: but she has, certainly, the required gifts.

Bernard Bergonzi, "Eat! Eat!," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1967 by NYREV, Inc.), June 1, 1967.

The dark shadow cast in the suburbs by the empire city is the subject of Paula Fox's remarkable first novel, Poor George…. It is remarkable for its crispness of phrase, its unbemused clarity of vision, and its solidly presented, beautifully realized cast of characters….

Miss Fox has a toughness that is unusual among the lamenters and dissectors of suburban gloom. She knows that fate is character and makes no bones about the moral judgments which divide her characters into those who are damned by softness or hysteria or sheer incompetence at life's tasks, and those who will manage somehow to overhaul or revive a character that has been damaged. She has a shining ability to get down the facts, minutely, sympathetically, devastatingly….

She is also witty in the New York style—direct, clipped, fanciful. Sometimes the wit gets in the way, imparting a too lacquered surface to her prose, an archness that is out of place. But when the characters and story take command, as in the last section of this novel, her writing has verve, pace and the unstudied brilliance of genuine imagination. She is a striking addition to the company of New York writers with something to say and the means to say it.

R. Rosenthal, in The New Leader, July 3, 1967, p. 16.

Using a merciless camera's-eye style, Paula Fox (whose books include "Portrait of Ivan" and "How Many Miles to Babylon?") describes in this really good novel ["Desperate Characters"] a loveless middle-aged marriage, human beings' cruelty to animals and vice versa, the white liberal's guilt, and the generation gap. Employing the technique of observation rather than solution, she spreads these problems before the reader and makes no recommendations….

The only reservation I would make about "Desperate Characters"—a minor one—is a faint excess of romanticism. An episode illustrating the hostility between summer residents and local people in eastern Long Island, where the Bentwoods' summer cottage is vandalized, is a little too pat, as is mention of an avant-garde artist who invents a weird typewriter. But these objections detract little because one is by then so concerned with the fates of Otto and Sophie and their "desperate" friends.

Miss Fox's new novel will, I hope, bring her the recognition she deserves, thanks to her acute sense of individual and social psychology.

Peter Rowley, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 1, 1970, p. 47.

For all its brevity, its lack of side and posturing, Desperate Characters … is a small masterpiece, a revelation of contemporary New York middle-class life that grasps the mind of the reader with the subtle clarity of metaphor and the alarmed tenacity of nightmare….

With uninsistent gradualness, Miss Fox constructs a network of observation and comment and deceptively ordinary detail that takes us far beyond what that casual eye can see, opening more and more perilously onto the unknown chasms of existence suggested by her disquieting title. For Sophie and Otto, in their speciously solid haven of lovingly polished old furniture, high ceilings, discreet pools of skillfully placed light, the complete works of Goethe within and a small Mercedes parked at the curb without, are slowly revealed to be menaced by forces—accidents, incidents, events that seem, when taken singly, merely fortuitous or luckless—giving off a growl of danger all the more ominous for being so essentially nameless and faceless and vague….

There is not one false note in Desperate Characters. Its tone, which brilliantly suggests both detachment and helpless rage without succumbing to either extreme, is a model of compassionate and yet sardonic scrutiny, a precise and subtle mingling of judgment and pity that is totally unsentimental and terrifyingly moving. It is an extraordinary achievement of passionate restraint and control.

Pearl K. Bell, "First Prize and Second Editions," in New Leader, February 2, 1970, pp. 19-20.

The amount of sheer creative energy necessary to fuel a long novel is easy to underestimate and hard to describe, but it cries out for notice in Paula Fox's new novel, The Western Coast, whose special excellence derives from the power that sets it in motion on the first page and sustains it for 300 more.

Despite a most unpromising, and even unoriginal subject, the novel stands out as very much the product of an intelligence and moral imagination both original and strong enough to overcome such handicaps. Readers of Fox's earlier novels, Poor George and Desperate Characters, know the quality of her writing, but in this novel she has enlarged her scope, fashioning an ample, thickly populated world whose initial confusions gradually resolve themselves into intelligible patterns….

The flow of energy Paula Fox has given her story drives us along … and gives The Western Coast the force whose thrust ultimately resides in the strength of Fox's moral imagination. She actually believes that we—the characters in her book and the readers outside it—can make some sense of this world, that the struggle to understand is gratifying, that our acts are not meaningless. What's more, she has contrived a fiction to demonstrate these propositions, and even better, has contrived it well. What more can be asked of a novel that recommends itself to our consideration?

Michele Murray, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), September 24, 1972, pp. 9-10.

[In The Western Coast,] Paula Fox writes tersely, flatly, with painful ungraciousness, about confusion and misery in California during World War II. Along the way she risks every fictional cliché about Hollywood seaminess, the confusions of being an American communist, young girls trying to find themselves, the unpleasantness of poverty, and so on. Since she is both very intelligent and wholly without nervousness, her book, although not much fun to read, seems unexpectedly serious after you're finished….

What is most impressive here is Fox's ability to remain almost frighteningly remote and noncommittal, without easy sympathy for her heroine. Annie's story has much to do with the condition of women in a world where men are stupid, weak, or imprisoned by false self-conceptions; but the historical setting, and the author's reticence, permit no voguish translation into the terms of contemporary feminism….

Paula Fox wants fictional events to generate their own meaning, and this is right, but like the man in Thurber's drawing I keep wondering what she wants to be inscrutable for.

Thomas R. Edwards, "News from Elsewhere," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1972 by NYREV, Inc.), October 5, 1972, pp. 21-3.

Paula Fox has fashioned her second novel out of desperate realities. "The Western Coast" is a fine, strong book whose idiomatic rendering of the blind passage of life through loss and confusion onto the cliff edge of experience and awareness is profoundly American. It is a record of an unmistakably American life during a period that forced to the surface of our lives some of the most distinctive characteristics of American culture. The time is the end of the Depression and the years of World War II. The place is Los Angeles. The life is that of Annie Gianfala….

Annie's life becomes a metaphor for the life of the nation. Like America, she, too, is cut loose; she, too, drifts; she, too, stares with an orphaned intelligence upon a human landscape that has grown silent and inexplicable; its familiar landmarks burned and twisted; its energy muffled and dreadfully still; its only motion a reflexive twitch. Her existence is extraordinarily isolated, and it reveals—as the Depression revealed to the nation—the stunning aloneness that is the essence of American life….

[The] brilliance of Paula Fox is that she creates protagonists whose significance lies in the womanness of their beings. The inert, disconnected, separately recording intelligence of Annie is like that of Sophie in Paula Fox's first novel, "Desperate Characters"; it is, in itself, a manifestation of the blind, helpless passage through life. Sophie's intelligence is trapped, inert, nonoperative. Sophie is the ultimate woman; she sees all, understands all, records all, and can do nothing. In "The Western Coast," the womanness of Annie Gianfala signifies the pain and courage with which human beings seek to deal with their condition and make themselves anew….

"The Western Coast" is a haunting novel. Spare, stripped, alive with the calm of dread: even as our lives are.

Vivian Gornick, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 8, 1972, pp. 6, 22.

Paula Fox has set herself an almost impossible task, and her failure to handle it successfully thus is almost a badge of honor. Annie Gianfala, the heroine of The Western Coast, is a girl with no sense of herself or what she might be. It isn't hard to write about such people if you believe that knowing why something happens is all there is to experience, but Paula Fox cares too much about Annie to let explanations satisfy her….

Paula Fox builds [a] world [of "drifters", "a bewildering array of characters"] with painful clarity, person by person, pointless incident by pointless incident. Each character sees in Annie's blankness a chance to see her as they want to see her, and Annie slides in and out, rejecting only those with intolerable definitions of her. There must be almost a hundred characters here, and each is so clearly realized that you don't have to jiggle your memory to recognize one after he returns from a long absence. The trouble is that Paula Fox doesn't know what makes Annie grow. She does, at the end, give us an Annie who is much more capable and directed than she was, much less vague and frightened, but the book commits itself to making this a slow process and what we get, really, is only the beginning and the final Annie. The Annie of p. 276 is essentially the Annie of p. 1; the Annie of p. 277, after a convenient lapse of four years, is someone else. But even if this is true and the book cannot be called a success, The Western Coast is really there, shattered, dense, painful.

Roger Sale, "Enemies, Foreigners, and Friends," in Hudson Review, Winter, 1972–73, pp. 703-14.