Every memoir, no matter where its author chooses to break off her auto-narration (walking out of the marriage, entering the gates of the college, gazing into the promising future from some hard-won higher ground), has an implicit as well as an explicit ending: I survived and surmounted all this to become the person who could write this book, turn strife and struggle into order and art. The book's very existence becomes a token of transcendence and projects an idea of the author as a meta-presence, a figure both implicated in and yet detached from the character portrayed in the narrative. A real imagined person if you will, and one who piques our curiosity as to how they "turned out," since we feel we "know" their younger self so well.
Despite more than her fair share of vicissitudes, Paula Fox has turned out just fine, thank you. Her Borrowed Finery, a precise, elegant, yet truly heartwrenching account of a young life filled with far too much disorder and early sorrow, comes at a crucial and near-perfect moment in her career. Thanks to a coterie of passionate admirers and a program of trade paperback reissues by W.W. Norton, she and her novels have emerged quite startlingly from the twilight to which so many "distinguished" literary careers are consigned. She's this year's Dawn Powell–and she's even alive to enjoy it. Both the literary bluebloods (Andrea Barrett, Shirley Hazzard, Frederick Busch, a New York Intellectual trifecta of Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin and Lionel Trilling) and youngbloods (David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Lethem, Walter Kirn and especially the newly lionized Jonathan Franzen) have signed on at one time or another as her advocates, a rather startlingly diverse group of boosters. Here is an instance where the generally Brownian motion of literary life has, through some happy accident, shifted into Darwinian mode, insuring the survival of the aesthetically fittest. How this happened makes for an interesting tale.
As he doubtless would have explained on the Oprah Winfrey show had he made it there, several years back Jonathan Franzen was mired in the slough of despond–a failed marriage, a commercially unsuccessful second novel, a despair that serious fiction could say anything to or do anything for an American culture of sensation rather than thought. In this dry season he stumbled upon Paula Fox's second novel, Desperate Characters, and was saved. It renders in pitiless detail three miserable days in the lives of Sophie and Otto Bentwood, cultured inhabitants of Fun City circa 1969, trapped in a marriage and a city both in the final stages of collapse. The Bentwoods, the crooked timber of humanity that their name implies, are equal neither to the challenges of a progressively decaying civilization (remember muggings?) nor to their own spousal failings. It's a tour de force of marital unhappiness and a soul-shivering portrait of the intellectual class at its lowest ebb–late Auden in prose. That such a book should be the occasion not for suicidal musings but, by Franzen's own testimony, the rebirth of his faith in the whole literary enterprise, is proof of the inscrutable nature of the novelist's psychology. That a novel of the strictest social realism, with nary a fillip or a frill, should inspire such cult devotion among the high IQ/postpomo set is equally perplexing, but it probably has something to do with the law of contraries. In the event, Franzen and Company's enthusiasm for Desperate Characters inspired a paperback republication, followed in due course by reissues of four other novels: Poor George, a 1960s urban black comedy; The Western Coast, an expansive novel of California in the 1930s; The Widow's Children, a family novel of Spanish-Cuban immigrants to New York tearing themselves to pieces; and A Servant's Tale, a portrait of a Hispanic maid rendered in the spirit of "A Simple Heart." Then journalistic lightning struck in the form of an admiring profile of Paula Fox in The New York Times Magazine, setting the stage for Borrowed Finery in a manner guaranteed to gladden her publisher's heart.