Thursday, June 12, 2008

Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

Jonathan Franzen somewhat famously championed this novel back into print and I can see both why he did and why it was out of print. It's quite good, but it feels of its moment--the 60s--in a way that's sort of uncomfortable now. The 60s have been mythologized by the winners--the rock and roll generation--not by the losers--their parents (I generalize, of course) and this feels like a novel of the parents who were frightened by just how dirty and dangerous the coming changes felt (or so I hear, I'm not as young as I feel but I'm not as old as all that either). So it's a novel about people who are completely unnerved by the coming moment.

One of the things I admired was the novel's tight structure--it's short, 156 pages in my edition--and is centered around a three day period in which the protagonist is bitten by a cat and then waiting to hear if the cat is rabid. But the lesson therein is that the novel is not about the cat bite and the waiting. It's about all the things that were already going on in this character's life that coincided with--and were then framed and illuminated by--the cat bite. One of the mistakes student writers tend to make in planning a novel or even a short story is they have a concept--woman bitten by cat must wait to discover if she has rabies!--but confuse that with a plot. As Ron Carlson used to say (probably still does), into what life has this day come. In other words nobody is sitting around waiting for a cat to bite them (well, metaphorically I might be), they have stuff to do, things going on. That stuf is your plot. The bite is what brings it all into focus.

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