Apr/May 2011

The Raw and the Cooked

Stephen Burn


In a career that has never quite stood still, Paula Fox has been a journalist, a teacher, a model, a machinist, and, most notably, the author of novels, memoirs, and more than twenty children's books. Her profile has risen over the past fifteen years, with writers such as Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, and Jonathan Lethem advocating on behalf of her novel Desperate Characters (1970). As she now approaches ninety, her latest book, News from the World, reprises her prolific career through the lens of her short work.

A collection of stories, essays, and autobiographical fragments published between 1965 and 2010, News from the World is so hungrily diverse that the book could easily be mistaken for a publisher's attempt to gather up the loose threads of Fox's energetic career. The seventeen pieces shuttle through family memories, language use, and censorship. Along the way, Fox meets actor Franchot Tone, art critic Clement Greenberg, and D. H. Lawrence's widow, Frieda. To cover all this territory, Fox employs a rhetorical register that's unusually elastic. The book's voice stretches, at times, toward the polemical: "What on earth is 'this age'?" Fox complains sourly of the vagueness of an unfavorable review of her 1986 YA novel The Moonlight Man. Elsewhere the voice achieves the aphoristic crispness that characterizes Fox's best fiction: Dogs, one character reflects, "must have some form of recollection, a residue of alarm that shaped their sense of the world." And in her earliest stories, her sentences loosen, attempting to capture vernacular rhythms: "After the funeral . . . flies was buzzing over everything."

Amid the shifting forms and subjects, funerals and death cluster to provide one of the book's most noticeable thematic preoccupations. In her 2001 memoir, Borrowed Finery, Fox recalls exploring a cemetery that stood next to her elementary school, reading the gloomy headstones "as if they were the beginnings and ends of stories," and it is striking how often the pieces in News from the World originate in a death—of a family member or a friend, of a celebrity or an unknown figure glimpsed from a window. Death's primal relationship to writing is closely linked to the art of studied confusion that animates many of the pieces here. "We often seem too impatient to allow ourselves to be puzzled," Fox writes. "We rush to define events, anomalies, surprises of all sorts, before we begin to know what we feel and think about them." Following this prescription, the stronger autobiographical essays, in particular, move forward with relative neutrality, delaying any sense of certainty and allowing what Fox calls "the complex accumulation of experience" to gather pace. There are moments when this approach makes her purpose unclear, her chosen path seem meandering, but our reward for agreeing to be puzzled typically comes at the end of a piece, where Fox orchestrates a jump shift, creating a carefully condensed conclusion that raises the essay to a higher order of meaning.

The short sketch "Franchot Tone at the Paramount," for instance, circles through private, specific experiences before unfolding onto a wider territory with its final sentence: "That intensity of feeling prepared me, in some fashion, for love itself, its contrarieties, its defeats, its beauty." The essay "Light on the Dark Side" recounts Fox's move from Manhattan to Brooklyn, where she lives near author L. J. Davis, before the final sentence reaches out from this experience for larger metaphysical echoes: "I think of L. J. Davis as one of those firefly-filled jars, illuminating the dark side of middle-class—and more than middle-class—efforts to find a meaningful life in what is outside of us."

The balancing act attempted here is tricky, and the book's weaker moments come when Fox departs too early from uncertainty to serve up a bland moral—say, that censorship is bad, or that gay people shouldn't be typecast ("there is as much diversity among homosexual people . . . as there is among other people")—or when the ending is not strong enough to redeem what has gone before. Though it is often the case that the recent material is stronger, there's no easy equation to make between each piece's date of publication and success. The second essay, about Greenberg, was written in 2010, but its gossip and complaints never get beyond the flaw Fox detects in comments the critic made about his father to the New York Times—he aired "feelings and opinions he should have kept to himself." But when the structure of these conclusions works—as it often does—the ending resonates past the final full stop.

Yet aside from thematic connections, deeper in the book's mind a kind of pattern-matching operation is under way, as subtle details accrete. As in her earlier fiction—most notably Desperate Characters, with its "tree fungus"–colored cat—Fox writes with great insight into the sensitive interface between humans and animals, and she presents us first with an autobiographical essay ("The Tender Night") and later with a story ("Grace"—a rigorously controlled work, alone worth the price of the book) that clearly emerged from the same experience of meeting a man whose love for a dog slid "easily into rage." Recurring images link essay and fiction—the dog's muzzle and paws as it lies down—and similar overlaps between other works (young couples in New Mexico, adoption agencies) reveal the cross-pollination between nonfiction and fiction in News from the World and Fox's art as a whole. A book that initially appears to be a scattered miscellany actually offers a careful glimpse into Fox's working processes, where the correspondences between varied modes provide a study of the relationship between art and life, of the way one experience can be pursued to divergent ends by different genres.

Stephen Burn is the author of Jonathan Franzen at the End of Postmodernism (Continuum, 2008).

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