Paula Fox Fox, Paula (Vol. 8) - Essay

Fox, Paula (Vol. 8)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Fox, Paula 1932–

Fox is an American novelist who also writes fiction for children. She has been praised for her realistic characterization in Poor George and Desperate Characters. (See also CLC, Vol. 2.)

["Desperate Characters"] has one little fault: a tendency to use brand names and other handy totems to suggest the character (rather than the circumstances) of the person the objects are attached to. This is journalistic shorthand—using Pucci and Gucci to cut and run from the hard work of revelation. But apart from this mannerism, "Desperate Characters" does precisely what it sets out to do. It takes as axiomatic that life in the city is almost intolerable. Not because the streets are dirty, but because some craziness is epidemic behind the locked doors. In a wonderfully controlled way it identifies the craziness, and its cause. And best of all, it does this without reference to "us" versus the "others." It does not lay blame. In Miss Fox's persuasive world, Thoreau's "mass of men" includes us all, includes herself as well. Her imagination is exact and rigorous, like her language. But it is not exclusive, and that is her rare virtue.

Geoffrey Wolff, "The Evil City," in Newsweek (copyright 1970 by Newsweek, Inc; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), March 16, 1970, p. 108.

The great American novel strikes again; these 333 pages [of The Western Coast] are very tightly stacked with tiny type. There is a sense of uncertainty at the beginning which makes it a touch difficult perhaps for the reader to acquire much immediate interest in anyone presented to him. But I would advise those with time and tenacity to stick with it. In her stride Paula Fox is good value, spinning a narrative thread that tightens in unexpected places. Moments or incidents that have passed return to create an overall texture of life and lives going on….

The Western Coast is neither indictment or praise; it comes over as factual and real, a straightforward statement of a country at a certain time. Here and there one may pick out hints, beginnings, forebodings of America's contemporary malaise. (p. 77)

Roger Baker, in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Roger Baker 1973; reprinted with permission), March, 1973.

For most novelists, there is a special constellation of fiction elements that works best. Alas, novelists are not born knowing what that constellation is, and the body of work of individual writers is often a series of trial-and-error efforts, interesting because of the gifts that are seeking, like water, their true level. In Paula Fox's new novel, "The Widow's Children," her special brand of unemphatic, perceptively detailed writing, along with her penchant for life-benumbed, will-less characters, struggles to make its mark. (p. 6)

Within this story of death and burial, the motif of Death-in-Life weaves its way. At intervals throughout the story's progress, various characters feel themselves to be numb, nearly asleep, half-dead; or they are observed to be that way by others….

Everyone in the book, in fact, at some time looks at everyone else with disgust. Because the point of view moves about to different members of the group, the characters are continually diminished by having bits of themselves sliced off by new pairs of observing eyes, uniformly hostile. When we feel we ought to be warmly inside the very bosom of the character on whose responses the moral authority of the book at that moment rests, we are kept coolly on the outside….

And therein lies what may be a central problem of this book: the characters are in the stocks, imprisoned in the narrow allotted space of their assigned personalities, trained to non-response. (p. 7)

As in Paula Fox's earlier novels, "The Western Coast" and "Desperate Characters," will-lessness is again the motif. But here the novel centers about a key incident that demands distinct response—conscious, moral. Why else have we been led to this moment? But the moment is undercut, blurred, muffled. Evil and good are both drowned.

With considerable skill, the author has moved her characters through the long, continuous scene that makes up the main body of the novel. From a room in a hotel, through its corridors, into streets and thence into a restaurant, this tightly stuck-together group performs a kind of dance of death from which now an arm protrudes, now a leg or a distorted face. Because of her skill, the reader reads and hopes. But alas, these dead will not awaken. (p. 18)

Norma Rosen, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 3, 1976.

The adventures of literary orphans, who are liable to be both cast out and imprisoned, locked out and locked in, can resemble a certain experience of family life: the experience of those who feel themselves excluded and who wish to escape. To think about orphans can look like a way of thinking about the family, whose members will sometimes be exposed, and imagine themselves exposed, to the orphan's double trouble of coercion and neglect….

The Widow's Children is a drama of rival presences and outlooks….

[Real] or imaginary, the orphan may be an outcast, but he may be more like an outlaw, or he may experience, as Jane Eyre occasionally does, a "sense of outlawry." And the outlaw is capable of constraining the outcast, as happens in Paula Fox's book.

Her remarkable novel describes a grisly family reunion, summoned by Laura as a send-off for her husband Desmond and herself, who are leaving on a trip to Africa, and sited in a New York hotel room, over drinks, of which Desmond flings back implausible quantities. Laura is a monster—impulsive, domineering. Her daughter Clara, whom she rarely sees, is at the party, and so are her brother Carlos, homosexual, once a music critic, and her friend Peter Rice, a dry, mild publisher….

Rice imagines Clara as a kind of orphan, and conveys why, in the books which uncover the latent witness of the outsider, the situation of the pathetic outsider who nonetheless is or has been in the bosom of a family has never been neglected….

It's not always easy to think of Clara as Laura's daughter, even as her rejected daughter, or to think of Laura as anybody's mother, or even as a woman at all. (p. 30)

It is as if the novel as we have it has partially suppressed a novel about a literary world, and the protective treatment of homosexual life might lead one to imagine that Laura the rich bitch has been painted over the portrait of a certain type of outrageous male writer or cultural partygoer. Unless I am inventing this element of transvestism, it may be that the author wanted to write about her profession—the etiquette of launches and lunches, about publishing, editors, interviews, leather, the world of literature—but was then won over by a competing subject matter. You might say that publishing is a somewhat childless profession: the novel as we have it is largely about children and the orphan's plight.

That plight has often induced shows of sensibility and a floridity of language, from neither of which the novel is altogether free. Clara declares that her birth was "a consequence of Ed Hansen's momentary insistence," which is a bit high-flown, and perhaps, in general, there is something like an excess of awareness on the part of the characters—Clara especially. We tend to call that kind of thing novelistic, and to a number of readers it may seem novelistic to make so much of the issue of attendance at the funeral, considered as a means of escape. No great harm, though, is done by any of this. The Widow's Children is a compelling and satisfying book. The critique of kinship and the world's law is intelligent and far from sentimental: it has in it, especially apparent in the wit, a worldliness which it could not do without, and which is that of someone who has lived long enough to have learned a good deal, for example, about brothers and sisters. (p. 31)

Karl Miller, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1976 NYREV, Inc.), October 28, 1976.

The Widow's Children is an exceptionally well-made novel, elegantly written and technically accomplished, with a rigorous regard for the classical unities of time (less than 24 hours elapse in the course of it) and place (a few rooms in and a cemetery outside New York City). Its plot, character, setting and structure are skillfully integrated. This is the novel as art, and the distinction between it and life is never blurred…. Aristotle would understand The Widow's Children, and use it to illustrate the second edition of his Poetics. (p. F1)

In all her books [Paula Fox] displays a lapidary talent, polishing each phrase until it glistens. Her eye and ear are unerring…. Such evocative, limpid and accurate writing is not so simply achieved.

Yet it is quite possible to admire Paula Fox's style and to appreciate her talent without feeling much more affection for this novel than its characters feel for one another or for themselves, which is very little indeed. Estranged from the world and abandoned by one another, they seem unable to fulfill either their own needs or the needs of anyone else. In the same way, the reader, too, is estranged; his own expectations, heightened by the form of this very formal novel, unfulfilled.

This may strike some as less a criticism of the novel than a questionable if not actually illegitimate response to it, a response less cerebral than visceral. Perhaps so, but as a barometer of aesthetic response, gut feelings are not to be distrusted entirely. Ultimately, The Widow's Children, like the night Paula Fox describes, seems not so much illuminated as "diluted by a pale but ruthless artificial light." (p. F3)

William McPherson, "The Family That Preys Together," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), October 31, 1976, pp. F1, F3.

"The Widow's Children" [is a] strange, bilious novel about a violent family gathering that leaves none of its participants unharmed…. Mrs. Fox allows her characters brief outbursts in which they seem to rise above their contempt for each other, but these flashes of levity or optimism are soon quashed. Despite the fact that the book is well written, it is somehow difficult to respond to, perhaps because the author has battened down each character so tightly in his or her misery that they all seem like dead souls—almost beyond comprehension or curiosity. (pp. 164-65)

The New Yorker (© 1976 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), November 1, 1976.

Not until we have finished The Widow's Children … do we realize how aptly [Fox's] intention is expressed by the epigraph she has taken from Rainer Maria Rilke. With characteristic economy she quotes only the beginning of his poem "Widow": "Deprived of their first leaves her barren children stand, and seem, for all the world, to have been born because she pleased some terror…." The rest of the short poem moves away from the children to the mother, but Fox is a novelist, not a poet, and her characters—a widow's aging offspring with willful perversity of their own—have made demands on her quite as urgent as Rilke's larger vision. Yet it is a measure of her impressive ambition that his lines stand sentinel over her work—that she dares in this short, rather brittle social novel, to be judged by their implications….

Karl Miller [see excerpt above] came [close] to grasping the scope of the book in quoting Stuart Hampshire on "the genealogy of misfortunes that pass across the generations as an inherited punishment," and in speaking of all the characters, whatever their age, as "outcast" and "outlaw" orphans. Nevertheless, it is their entanglement in family ties, more than their forlorn freedom from them, that shapes their destinies….

[Fox's originality] consists of an odd combination of traditional elements (with her puritanical Jamesian ambassador in a transplanted European scene); a stylish appreciation of contemporary urban life; and appeals to our long-standing fascination with the witch, the family curse, the changeling….

Fox's narrative is neither obscure nor cryptic. The foreground story follows the Maldonada family (the name suggests their deprivation; they are "badly bestowed") for 24 hours in New York City. (p. 16)

[Their] mother, Alma—the widow of the title—has just died in a nursing home….

Fox's design … is straightforward—indeed, with its party at the outset and its funeral at the end, the novel is conventionally structured. Still, such resolution as she offers is not of itself enough to rid the reader of his disgust for the three Maldonadas—"like dinosaurs sinking into the tar pits, flailing about," Clara says. They and their friends would be unbearable if Fox did not provide the background of their youth and beauty, when they were vigorous and optimistic. Constantly, and with great emotional force, she moves from their aging bodies, "warm, sweating hands," drunken maundering, to a time when everything seemed possible.

But, in summoning up the past, the author falters in precisely the command of detail and concrete reality that is her greatest strength when rendering the present. It is as if concentration on the contemporary scene had exhausted her. She is under no obligation, of course, to provide a genealogy; memories fail, legends take over, these dreamers of lost wealth are unreliable narrators. It is not in this gray area that we sense the past falls apart, rather on occasions when Fox has been unnecessarily specific, with someone's age given here, a date or two there, until the most unobservant reader is disturbed by anachronisms and improbabilities….

Fox has earned the right, though, to leave large mysteries unanswered, to proceed by indirection in suggesting what set the childrens' teeth on edge, how Alma, in the words of Rilke, "pleased a terror" in order to give birth to her barren brood…. Yet I think the terror lay not there, but in the Maldonadas' denial of their [Jewish] faith. As a child, Alma liked to visit churches and synagogues; perhaps in death, Carlos jokes, she "was returning to the bosom of Abraham."

An ambitious novel, as I have said, with a larger intention than I had at first realized. In its purpose, and in execution when Paula Fox remains on the scene she knows so well, The Widow's Children is remarkable. (p. 17)

Ruth Mathewson, "Family Entanglements," in The New Leader (© 1976 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), December 20, 1976, pp. 16-17.

The intelligence and sensibility in which Paula Fox's fiction is steeped sets it distinctively apart. Moreover, her narrative skills are considerable, her dialogue is engaging and authentic, and an appealingly wicked humor often glints beneath the appraisal of one of the characters who crowd her pages. Having said this, one cannot help fretting that her latest novel, The Widow's Children, leaves behind a great sense of dissatisfaction. For although she displays in it all the qualities that have distinguished her earlier novels, somehow, in The Widow's Children, they do not combine to the same striking effect as before. In fact, they do not combine at all, which may be part of the problem.

A more significant part may lie in the nature of the people who pass through this story. On the whole, they are a wearisome lot, far too self-absorbed to be able to respond dramatically to each other. Yet it is their effect on one another that provides the focus of the book and that should—but doesn't—provide the momentum of the plot as well. Mrs. Fox's interest lies in an examination of the nature of the family's claims on the individuals who compose it. But the family she has created for this purpose, although linked by birth and chained to the same disabling memories, is not up to her intentions. Its members are not just improbable, singly and as a group; they are unusable as a lens through which the reader may scrutinize either the society or himself. The book suffers an additional handicap: its story is told from no single viewpoint but from several simultaneously, a device which, in this case, serves only to dissipate the reader's sympathies. With everyone talking at once, points are hard to make and meanings are apt to get lost in the babble. (pp. 217-18)

[There] is a cryptic conclusion to a cryptic book, a book with much to recommend it, but one whose deepest meaning seems to have been buried under too many levels of implication. (p. 218)

Rene Kuhn Bryant, "Painted Veils," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1977; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), February 18, 1977, pp. 217-18.