[21 June 2011]
In Paula Fox’s new essay and short story collection, News From the World, Fox writes like she’s living and we just happened to show up and watch. Though Fox has published six novels, a memoir and plenty of essays, many dealing with her fraught childhood, her writing has come in and out of fashion.
Her recent resurgence, popularly credited to Jonathan Franzen, provides the unacquainted with an opportunity to see what they’ve missed. While most have heard of Fox, adjusting to her approach may not come easily at first. The work comprising News From the World is sweeping and sometimes dull, yet often intriguing in its dullness, like life. “Cigarette”, a characteristically meandering explanation of how Fox came to give up smoking, serves as both stand-alone and intro, neatly initiating the reader into Fox’s deceptively casual style.
To read Fox’s words is to sit at her feet, to take part in what feels at times like oral tradition rather than a more scholarly mode of writing. As the stories and essays unfold in reverse chronological order, the reader becomes increasingly attuned to Fox’s particular manner. None of which is to say News From the World lacks magnitude, in fact the opposite. “The Tender Night”, an elliptical essay about Fox’s gay former neighbor, provides a prime example of both Fox’s dexterity with poignant subject matter and her staying power. When she writes about spotting Jack on Central Park West “covered in bandages” due to a sexual interlude gone violently wrong, rather than blame her neighbor’s broken nose on his sexual orientation, forward-thinking Fox “shiver[s] in the sudden awareness of the wantonness of sexual life…how the wish for sensual pleasure can be accompanied by peril.”
Again and again Fox highlights this notion, sometimes obliquely, sometimes with unswerving candor. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to identify the tension inherent in the pursuit of connection as the centerpiece of her book. Whether Fox is discussing her transience, both physical (she moves from apartment to home to apartment, each move heralded by unexpected violence), or emotional (a meandering relationship with her brother-in-law, art critic Clement Greenberg), throughout the slim volume, alienation remains the connective tissue.
It’s an interesting trick, to fuse a disparate humanity via the shared experience of that which separates. In fact, this may be Fox’s forte. While the combination of short stories and essays feels somewhat jarring, uniting the pieces is Fox’s peculiar ability to squeeze optimism from the bleak everyday. In the titular essay, “News from the World”, a middle-aged wife and mother romances an old man whose village faces an invading oil spill. It’s a dreary set up to be sure, but one that proves unaccountably uplifting, perhaps only due to its unflinching honesty.
Though otherwise notably devoid of memoir’s conventionally confessional tone, News From the World commences with a preface in which Fox describes her father as a “writer and a drunk”. Perhaps as the child of a charismatic alcoholic, Fox finds herself entwining optimism and pessimism, having been exposed to paternal extremes. Though undoubtedly a chaotic force in her life, her father also proved Fox’s inspiration spurring her to a career that outpaced his own.
One wonders if this incongruity, as well as her father’s inherent contrasts, somehow contain the seeds of Fox’s worldview, if visits spent witness to alcoholic peaks and valleys stimulated her tendency to build alliances from polarities. In “Unquestioned Answers”, when Fox asks “don’t we sense in our very cells that it is a dangerous world? And isn’t it because of that deep presentiment, that we can become brave?” one suspects Fox may be working to shape her own unquestionably messy life experience into something palatable, even pure.
The New Yorker’s review of News From the World cautions that the book is not meant for a new reader—for that person, better to acquaint oneself with Fox through her more linear novels. While this is no doubt true, there is something to be gained from picking up Fox’s new collection, even as a novice. Sometimes fierce, often barbed, Fox maintains a calm compassion, a comprehension of what unites rather than divides. In this way, although the work Fox chooses to include in this everything-but-the-kitchen-sink compilation spans 45 years, most pieces feel as fresh as if written today.