Profile—Paula Fox

by Weston Cutter

There are lists of them wherever you want to look, usually lists kept only in mind and not on paper. Say you walk into Ruminator, or a library, or stumble into a small journal, and you read or hear of some author who someone will vehemently claim is one of the Greatest Unknown writers ever. You may end up chasing a few, finding out that yes, everyone’s right in loving Kosinski or Sebald, wrong, perhaps, about Powell or Salter.

Beginning in 1999, and continuing right up to now, the name you’d likely hear in this reverential tone would be: Paula Fox. Best known as a children’s author, having written 16 of them and winning most major awards in the genre, she’s also quietly famous for her 6 adult titles. And with last year’s publication of Borrowed Finery, a memoir, she added new fuel to the growing fire of praise for her.

The last of her up until now out-of-print adult novels, The God of Nightmares, will come out this summer. The book that started the revival was Desperate Characters, originally published in 1970. On its rerelease, it was appended with a forward by the then Oprah-unheard-of Jonathan Franzen. He put every aspect of the book under his worshiping eye and, to me at least, introduced a book that could never, ever, live up to the almost impossibly gushing praise.

Of course, since you’re now reading this, the book actually did, even surpassed any expectation Franzen loaded the reader with. Its a perfect little novel, worth all the voluminous praise, and easily ranking right up there with The Old Man and the Sea and Bariccos’ (another of those Greatest Unknowns, and who’s also got a new book out this summer) Salt, as far as less-than-160-page masterpieces go.

There’s something endearing, almost, about a book coming back into print. Rabindranath Tagore’s beautiful Fireflies will have a new life as of May, and it’ll be a hell of a day when those boxes are razored open. There’s an innocence in the whole act, in the big faceless publishing companies—places so fraught with competition and bottom-line concern they make kleptomaniacs seem generous—in essence issuing a bound, printed apology.

Which is what’s so endearing. We live so fast now, wars fought instantly, on all screens and every radio in the world. And with this speed, and concern for profit, has come the inevitable shrinking reading glasses that slip into a pen for a case, portable mp3 players the size of a wallet, whole volumes of personal information packed onto magnetic strips. I’m not a Luddite, I’m not opposed to my iPod by any stretch of the imagination, but—

Something. With the floodlights always on, the whole world sniffing around for something compelling and mesmerizing, its heartening that someone, somewhere, has the time, energy, and patience to look back at more than JFK or Nixon or Pearl Harbor. (Perhaps this is when to remind you that this year will see more new books come into print than you could ever conceivably read in your entire life.) It’s almost anachronistic to put these books back into print, these books that can’t bear on ethernetted universities or Palm Pilots. But then again, maybe there’s something being said that resonates, something that’ll make these quiet, nearly forgotten works seem wizened and not just old. (Perhaps this is when to remind you that all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work was out of print when he died.)

I’ll be the first to admit, too: When I hear about one of the Greatest Unknowns I usually rush online, find everything I can, and then get disappointed. Too many times I’ve picked up books, stuck with a horrible short story or novel that ends with, to paraphrase William Goldman, a man and a woman sitting at a caf and a fly walking across their table, and the last words something along the lines of and now they understood. In short: The Greatest Unknowns were best left to those who liked things simply by virtue of their unheard-of-ness, best left unknown.

Not so, dear reader, with Paula Fox. Read her. Get Desperate Characters, or Poor George, her first published novel. Sit down and devour. Even if you hate the dull spark and occasional drudgery of novels about people breaking down or falling apart, and if you’re sick to death of novels set, as always, in New York City, you’ll like her stories.

A bit about her: imagine a perfectly folded piece of origami, you can pick whatever shape you like. Imagine that under each fold is something that smells and feels and looks so beautiful you almost can’t believe it’s being hidden. Surely anything beautiful should be catapulted forward, embossed and glittering so as to entice. Well, in this case, the origami is Fox’s paragraphs, and in each you find sentence after sentence of compressed, absolutely alive descriptions, scenes, settings, dialogue.

Well, then, maybe it’s unfair: Maybe the whole thing is a twisted publicity thing where, in that most American of confusions, Paula Fox as phenomenon and Paula Fox as great author aren’t distinguishable anymore. Perhaps. But next time you’re in a bookstore, look who’s done the introductions for her books: Franzen, Jonathan Lethem, Andrea Barrett. Not that you can take their word either, involved as they are and everything.

Go ahead and rush online now. Look her up. She’s old and wise and funny, and her interviews are just as good as her prose. Waffle at the store, but buy it, buy whichever book is there. Leave the book on a shelf for awhile and conclude: Its a great thing, but you’ll take Franzen’s or Lethem’s or Barrett’s word on her.

No, the only thing to do is read her. She is worth the revival. Start where you want in her canon and read right up to this summer’s latest and last release, and be thankfully, almost genuflectingly, grateful that even with faster-than-instantaneous life buzzing by even while you’re asleep, people are still casting their nets and glances back and not just forward. That someone found her, and that you now have.

© 2002 by Weston Cutter. All rights reserved.