My reading of Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters marks a series of firsts for me.
It’s the first e-book I’ve read. Ever. I couldn’t find the book in the library and I didn’t want to buy the book, but I did find a copy I could read for free online at Open Library, an internet book archive.
I didn’t enjoy it. The browser of my crappy tablet shut down constantly as I was trying to read the book. That never happens with a regular book.
I got tired of looking at a screen by page 6 of Desperate Characters. One of the pleasures of reading a regular book is that it gives me a break from all the screens in my life.
And! I like the feel of a book. I like holding a printed book in my hands. Kurt Vonnegut was right:
(Books) feel so good — their friendly heft. The sweet reluctance of their pages when you turn them with your sensitive fingertips. A large part of our brains is devoted to deciding whether what our hands are touching is good or bad for us. Any brain worth a nickel knows books are good for us.
My brain does not like e-books.
Sometimes while lying down and reading, the sun hits my face and it makes me drowsy. When that happens, I like to place the book on my face and close my eyes and wait until the sunlight shifts so I can comfortably resume reading.
Can’t put an e-book on my face.
Books also make good coasters. It’s not advisable to put a cold drink on a tablet. Jonathan Franzen perfectly articulates my position on e-books vs. printed books:
The technology I like is the American paperback edition of Freedom. I can spill water on it and it would still work. So it’s pretty good technology. And what’s more, it will work great 10 years from now.
Maybe nobody will care about printed books 50 years from now, but I do. When I read a book, I’m handling a specific object in a specific time and place. The fact that when I take the book off the shelf it still says the same thing — that’s reassuring.
I care about and I’m reassured by printed books as well. I’m a dinosaur. I don’t care.
Speaking of Jonathan Franzen, I looked for a copy and tolerated an electronic version of Desperate Characters because of how enthusiastic he was about it in his essay “Why Bother?” in How To Be Alone. Desperate Characters left such an impression on him that he wrote the foreword for the 1999 edition of the book.
Back to the series of firsts: Desperate Characters is the first novel I’ve read in over a year and the first piece of fiction I’m covering for my “What I’m Reading” series of posts. It’s about Sophie and Otto Bentwood, a privileged couple with a tense and crumbling marriage set in a rapidly changing New York City circa 1970. Paula Fox said the book is about ” a married couple struggling with the presence of people less lucky than they were.” The Bentwoods seemed to be annoyed, not just struggling with, the presence of everyone, including their friends, each other, and themselves.
The book is 156 pages and thank God for that because I couldn’t stand to spend anymore time with the Bentwoods. I give Fox credit for making unlikeable, unsympathetic characters interesting. Her writing style and keen eye for detail made these characters bearable.
The book begins when Sophie is bitten by a feral cat she had been feeding. Sophie’s fear of the consequences of that bite and the avoidance of its seriousness are symbolic — it represents the fear and avoidance of the wild and uncontrollable world she’s living in. She says near the end of the book while waiting to find out if she has rabies: “God if I’m rabid, I’m equal to what is outside.”
The characters are desperate, I think, because of an oppression described by Otto’s former friend and law partner Charlie:
No oppression had ever been so difficult to resist as middle-class oppression, because it wears a thousand faces, even the face of revolution, and that it is an insatiable gut that can even nourish itself on the poison its enemies leave lying about to destroy it.
I had to read that passage more than once. The whole book insists on being re-read.
Despite the fact that I read the book as an e-book and the fact that I couldn’t stand the characters, I enjoyed it. I enjoyed spending time with a novel. I missed it. Novels require you to engage with it. You must bring not just your intellect to it, but your imagination as well. I liked feeling like I was in NYC. I liked wondering about the characters when I wasn’t reading the book. I liked taking refuge in a fictional world, even for a little while.
Jonathan Franzen asks in the forward “Why torment ourselves with books?” They ask questions and give no answers, are challenging and sometimes disturbing. Why bother? Because life gives no answers and is challenging and disturbing. I like to be confronted with this. It’s strangely comforting.
I recommend Desperate Characters if you write fiction and want to be inspired by someone who’s great at it and I recommend you pick up a novel, any novel if you haven’t done so lately like me. And be comforted.