"It was six in the morning. Through the open kitchen door, Sophie felt the morning sunlight on her bare feet like a sustained and mindless stare. She poured herself a shot glass of whiskey, then drank it down hastily, catching glimpses, as her head fell back, of the waxed surface of kitchen cabinets, a flash of scoured pots, a line of sharp Sabatier knives gripped by a strip of magnet."
This excerpt, from Paula Fox's Desperate Characters (published in 1970), sounds (specifically) like the quiet, painful breakdown of a desperate housewife. However, Sophie Bentwood is not a housewife, nor quite a character, but a member of the educated class in New York. She translates French literature from home while her husband, Otto, is an attorney. They live in a Brooklyn brownstone in the late 1960s, not yet gentrified and quite dangerous still. Sophie's 6am whiskey is downed on a Monday morning following an atrocious weekend, that while nothing quite horrible happened, enough minor setbacks add up to make for a very anxious novel.
The precipitating crisis is a cat bite. Against Otto's wishes, Sophie is feeding a stray when it attacks her. The bite looks infectious and there is the possibility of rabies. She pretends that it was nothing yet she worries incessantly: "It was only her hand, she told herself, yet the rest of her body seemed involved in a way she couldn't understand. It was as though she'd been vitally wounded." The cat's viciousness is emblematic of the neighborhood's general menace. The ten-minute walk to a friend's party is a minefield: "Beer bottles and beer cans, liquor bottles, candy wrappers, crushed cigarette packs, caved-in boxes that had held detergents, rags, newspapers, curlers, string, plastic bottles, a shoe here and there, dog feces." Neighbors leer, defecate, and masturbate openly.
Otto bitterly complains about these conditions of urban blight, Sophie tolerating him with some little annoyance. They are a childless couple in their early 40s, not affectionate or even friendly, but have been together so long it's like they have become interdependent on each other's identities. Nevertheless, Sophie once had an affair with Francis, one of Otto's clients a few years back. It did not end dramatically, but with a deflated air, a dull hiss, and it had seemingly meant a lot more to Sophie than it had to Francis. Paula Fox is an incisive writer, with clear, precise, haunting prose, but nothing in the book is as pathetic as how the last motions of Sophie's affair are described:
"They drank a glass of white wine. Absently, he touched her ear lobe. She stood up. He backed her against a wall, pulled up her skirt. She tried to anticipate him. He pressed against her, suddenly turned away, showed her a new book on ferns. She heard the zing of a coin as it rolled out of his pocket and hit the floor. On the couch, he knelt above her, looked down at her body with sharp unimpassioned curiosity. He couldn't control a fit of coughing; it rattled her insides, traveled deep through belly and stomach and chest. She was outraged that he could make her laugh at that moment. But she couldn't stop laughing. They fell off the bed. Her bones weren't such young bones, and they hurt. 'I must give up either smoking or fucking,' he said. The gray return was before her. It was unthinkable to leave him. Sometimes she took a taxi. She rode home seeing nothing, her mouth slightly swollen, her cheeks rosy."
Over the weekend, while Sophie's hand is throbbing they go to a friend's party, where a stone is lobbed through a bedroom window. This too is ominous, but Otto is distracted from Sophie's predicament by his own problems, namely that of his law partner, Charlie, leaving the firm. Charlie comes by the house in the middle of the night and Sophie steals out with him for a drink. It's weird and slightly perfidious, and Sophie confides to Charlie more than she should (about Otto's frame of mind as well as the fact she'd had an affair.) There are distracted visits Sophie makes to the department store and a friend's loft, and finally the emergency room, which as you might imagine is a surreal circle in Dante's hell.
So Otto and Sophie decide to escape the city, packing lunch boxes and driving to Long Island where they keep a summer home. But they cannot escape the city's worst excesses. As soon as they enter their sleepy cottage, they discover it's been vandalized: "The caning of the dining room chairs and been slashed, sea shells ground to dust on the floor, lamps broken, the Paisley fabric of the couch cover torn into strips, cushions gutted, over every painting or photograph a giant X had been drawn with barn paint...and in front of the fireplace among the heaped up paperback mysteries and magazines, a hummock of dried feces sat like a rotting toad." The implication being of course, nowhere is safe, nowhere is inviolate, and that society was going to the dogs, or worse, rabid cats. The best you could do to escape was die.
The novel's ending hinges on whether or not Sophie has rabies. Though there is a cure, a vaccination (albeit inconveniently administered) does not make it any easier if she were to learn the worst. No matter the lab results, life is simply out of Sophie's hands, her fate continuously mocked by forces far out of her control. So what? you might be asking... It's just a cat bite after all. That the conflicts in Fox's novel are insubstantial or less dramatic than what some readers might expect in no way diminishes the pacing of the novel. Otto and Sophie are rational, intelligent, capable (if a little edgy) citizens beset by small crises that for all their muster or logic cannot overcome. They are not exactly victims so much as they are overly sensitive to the calamities of modern urban life. They fight futilely with their limited capacities. That Otto and Sophie have each other is not exactly enough when your inner life is so prodigious and inexplicable. Desperate Characters is a novel for anyone who has felt the world closing in on you, cutting off all escape routes, suffocating your capacity to feel harmonious. Therefore it is relatable to most of us.