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Such Nativity

Borrowed Finery
By Paula Fox
(Hentry Holt and Company, 210 pp. $23) 

Despite having been recently re-issued with introductions by modish writers such as Jonathan Franzen and Jonathan Lethem, the six dense little masterpieces that make up Paula Fox's fictional oeuvre still have not penetrated the mainstream. It is unlikely that they ever will. Fox is a tough writer. Even her most devoted fans are often tentative about recommending her work to their friends. She specializes in humid domestic tension, alienation, anomie. She is a poet of appalling moments. Hers are not novels that you "curl up" with, except perhaps in an involuntary gesture of excruciation. They are strongly flavored and painful novels, suffused with a heavy sense of what one of her characters calls "the sheer effort of a single human life to complete its course." Oprah's Book Club will not be calling anytime soon.

Adults—morbidly self-conscious adults—are Fox's subject, but her glancing depictions of children tend to suggest that they are not exempt from the effortfulness of life. She usually catches children on the perimeter of the action—out of the corner of her eye, as it were—picking their way through a stale-smelling living room the morning after an unhappy dinner party, or peeping from behind furniture when the adults brawl. With these fleeting appearances, the children offer mute reproach to the outrageous solipsism of their parents. As one alcoholic mother exclaims in the novel Poor George: "I'm so sick of it! Thinking about myself. Loathsome! Even when I tend to the little girls, I'm thinking—here I am, their mother, taking care of them."

IT COMES NOT as a complete surprise, then, to learn from Fox's memoir that her own childhood was unhappy. She was born in Manhattan in the early 1920s to Paul, a hard-drinking and unsuccessful Hollywood screenwriter, and Elsie, his beautiful and perpetually furious wife. Her mother was "ungovernable in her haste" to be rid of her, and a few days after the baby's birth she handed her over to an orphanage. Some weeks later Fox's scandalized grandmother retrieved her, and for a while after that she was passed among strangers (including a pair of newlyweds who gamely took her on their honeymoon). When she was five months old, she was taken in by a Congregational minister in upstate New York, who looked after her for several years until her parents resurfaced. At this point, it seems, her father had decided to take a more active role in his daughter's upbringing. But his resolution didn't last long. Soon after Fox traveled across the country to join her parents in Los Angeles, her mother delivered an ultimatum to her father—the banal but effective "either she goes or I go"—and Fox was promptly farmed out to the care of a certain Mrs. Cummings in a town thirty-five miles away.

This was the beginning of Fox's long picaresque, through the high, medium, and mostly low life of assorted relations and family friends. "I learned," Fox writes, "that if I were to see my parents, I had to live away from them." She shared a dingy apartment with her Spanish grandmother in Kew Gardens, Queens. She spent a year in Cuba, where the grandmother was employed as a live-in companion to a rich and senile cousin. She was dumped in Florida for a while, then in New Hampshire. She spent several months when she was fifteen living alone in New York, attending art school until she ran out of money. She worked as an errand girl for a theater company in Nantucket. She attended a finishing school in Montreal and then, for a time, the Juilliard School of Music in Manhattan. One of her father's last attempts at a paternal gesture was to pack her off to Hollywood when she was eighteen, in the putative care of a drunken family acquaintance.

The outsized Victorian quality of its dramatis personae, the grand sweep of its plot, and the intensity with which it re-creates the frightful powerlessness of childhood: all these qualities confer a distinctly Dickensian flavor upon Fox's book. But in the end what this memoir brings to mind more vividly than anything else is fairy tale. As in a fairy tale, the heroine survives the cruelties inflicted by a wicked mother and a feckless father by dint of her own resourcefulness and the kindness shown her by strangers. As in a fairy tale, the random acts of altruism that she encounters are presented as inexplicable wonders. Virtue is aberrant. Unkindness is the rule.

At the age of five or so, Fox is invited to visit her parents in Manhattan. Her mother greets her by silently flinging a glass at her.

Water and pieces of ice slid down my arms and over my dress. The dog crouched at my feet. My father was in the doorway, holding my mother tight in his arms. Then he took me away from the apartment.

The next time that she is invited to visit them, a few months later, they are staying in a fancy hotel. Room service is ordered, and when the tray arrives, Fox observes that she has forgotten to request milk. Her father opens the window and drops the tray into the airshaft. "Through tight lips, my father said mildly, `Okay, pal. Since it wasn't to your pleasure....'" After that, mother and father depart for an evening out, leaving their bewildered daughter in the care of a young man who promptly falls asleep.

From time to time the monotony of parental neglect is broken up by the father's bursts of energetic contrition. Paul was not a bad man, Fox suggests; his intentions were good. It was just that other things—his drunkenness, his peripatetic life, his wife—always got in the way. Fox's mother, by contrast, is presented as utterly single-minded in her monstrousness. We have seen versions of the terrible Elsie before, in Fox's fiction. Sophie's mother in Desperate Characters—a woman who likes to wake her daughter in the morning with "jeering applause"—has something of Elsie's icy affect. Laura in The Widow's Children, with her characteristic expression of "always impending irony" and her mission to "destroy certainty," is almost certainly modeled on Elsie. Once, shortly after Fox's parents had separated, Elsie rang her daughter, demanding to know if she loved her. (This was a prelude to getting Paula to hunt down and inspect the diary of her father's new girlfriend.) "Who was I to love such a person and who was she to be loved?" Fox writes. "I was frightened by her question; there was something in her voice that made loving her a punishment. But I said yes."

THE MEMOIR BONANZA of recent years has tended to make us rather jaded and connoisseurial about tales of parental cruelty. Is there, at this point, any taboo whose transgression we have not had some trembly-voiced survivor depict for us in gross paratactic detail? Is there a domestic perversity that we have not seen laid horribly bare in precious writing-workshop prose? The contemporary breed of proudly suffering memoirists has turned the genre into a kind of pornography of dysfunction. Reading them, one is reminded of the Monty Python sketch in which a group of elderly men vie for bragging rights to the most egregious childhood deprivation.

By the current standards of sensation, Fox's recollections are soft-core, almost quaint. One of the pleasures of this memoir is the author's utter indifference to any perverse kudos that might derive from past anguish. She signals that indifference, among other ways, by beginning her book with a luminous evocation of uneventful happiness.

Sandwiched between the crisis of her earliest infancy and the turmoil of the rest of her youth, Fox's time with the gentle Reverend Corning, in the aptly named hamlet of Balmville, constituted her childhood Eden. The Reverend, who wore a high-crowned Panama hat in the month of August and wrote a weekly column for the Newburgh News called "Little-Known Facts About Well-Known People," is the white witch of this narrative: a highly particularized personification of goodness. The author of several books (including a history of the Blooming Grove church, where he preached, and a collection of his own sonnets), he was a keen amateur historian of the Hudson Valley, and took Fox with him on his trips to investigate local Indian burial grounds. He also introduced her to the pleasures of Moxie at the Newburgh soda fountain and read her the novels of Washington Irving. "Uncle Elwood" appears to have been gifted with a preternaturally sanguine temperament, but under extreme pressure he was known to declare that he "could fly to Jericho." He once sought his young charge's advice on what he should write his next sermon about. Fox, age four or so, thought a waterfall would be a good topic; and she was amazed the following Sunday to discover that the preacher had taken her suggestion: "I grasped consciously for an instant what had been implicit in every aspect of daily life with Uncle Elwood—that everything counted and that a word spoken as meant contained a mysterious energy that could awaken thought and feeling in both speaker and listener."

The danger of quietly charming vignettes such as these is that their charm will grow mawkish, or that their quietness will grow dull. But there is a tough, ferruginous streak in Fox's prose that is inimical to sentimentality. One of Fox's strengths as a writer has always been her ability to persuade us of the living presence of good and evil in the humblest of domestic situations. The great moral struggles, she reminds us, are fought out not on mountaintops, but in drab living rooms.

Even the Eden of Balmville is fraught with interior drama. Every Sunday, Fox recalls, after attending church with the Reverend, she would find herself beset by a sudden, terrifying crisis of confidence.

My unquestioning trust in Uncle Elwood's love, and in the refuge he had provided for me ... would abruptly collapse. In an instant, I realized the precariousness of my circumstances. I felt the earth crumble beneath my feet. I tottered on the edge of an abyss. If I fell, I knew I would fall forever.

Of course, to be abandoned at birth by one's own blood, and then taken in by poor strangers, is apt to give a child an unusually piquant sense of the capriciousness of fate. It is also apt to create a heightened awareness of the moral range of which humans are capable. Fox had escaped the orphanage only because "by chance, by good fortune, I had landed in the hands of rescuers, a fire brigade that passed me along from person to person until I was safe."

Naturally she took questions of character more seriously than the average child. Witness her flinty observations of "Auntie," the Reverend's whiny, divorced sister.

She smoked cigarettes, somewhat furtively, and carried a pack of them in a cloth bag, along with scraps of cotton or wool with which she rapidly crocheted small rugs and blankets in colors that suggested mud or blood or urine.

The cloth bag had a wooden handle and was embroidered with a design that made me uneasy. Perhaps it was the reddish entwined loops that led me to think of the copperhead snakes Uncle Elwood had warned me about, lurking in the woods in spring.

Auntie, the beady-eyed child had determined, was not a potential fire brigade volunteer—not someone, that is, to be relied upon in extremis. Inevitably, perhaps, this capacity for distinguishing friend from foe broke down when it came to assessing her mother and her father. Like most children, her attraction to her volatile, mysterious parents was tragically hardy—capable of withstanding years of abuse. Of the occasion on which her mother attacked her with a cocktail, she observes here, with a characteristic evenness of tone:

For years I assumed responsibility for all that happened in my life, even for events over which I had not the slightest control. It was not out of generosity of mind or spirit that I did so. It was a hopeless wish that I would discover why my birth and my existence were so calamitous for my mother.

This wish to understand, we note, is "hopeless." Nothing, ultimately, can pierce the opacity of the mother's awfulness.

Fox has never been a great explainer in her fiction, and in this memoir she is terser than ever. Occasionally her disciplined refusal to provide interpretation seems to place more rather than less metaphorical freight on a recollected incident, with slightly grandiose results. For the most part, though, the absence of the usual exegetical padding is welcome. As readers, we have grown so accustomed to receiving psychological x-rays of the characters whom we encounter in literature that it is startling to come across a portrait of a filial relationship that has no recourse to the psychiatric worldview, that makes no attempt to trace unconscious motivations.

One of the reasons that modern memoirs often seem dispiritedly homogeneous, in spite of the diligent variousness of their contents, is that they all tend to make obeisance to the same Freudian paradigm. Everything that is particular is boiled down to the same set of psychological generalities. By steadfastly refusing to theorize the inner lives of her protagonists, Fox gives back to us the irreducible oddness, the mysterious richness, of old-fashioned character.

As a result, her portraits may be less self-advertisingly "fair" than is usual in modern memoir. There are no theorized causes here to mitigate her mother's behavior; there is just the behavior speaking for itself, with terrifying eloquence. But if Fox denies her mother any "understanding," she also denies herself the vanity of being seen to understand. Toward the end of the book, she describes going to visit her mother on her deathbed. She has not seen her in thirty-eight years, but the sight of the wizened old lady inspires nothing but intense dislike—an animus that manifests itself in physical repulsion. When she needs to pee, she chooses to leave the house and to squat under a tree rather than have her flesh touch her mother's lavatory seat.

No last-minute, heart-warming illuminations here. The grimness of this filial postscript would be almost unbearable were it not paired with a contrastingly joyous account of Fox being tracked down, in middle age, by the child whom she had herself given up for adoption in her youth.

I walked off the plane and into the airport waiting room. I hadn't gone more than a few feet when I heard running steps behind me. I turned to look at the woman who was doing the running. We both laughed at the same time. We walked so closely together, I could feel her breath on my face.... I found her beautiful. She was the first woman related to me I could speak to freely.

Here, in quite unexpected form, is the book's true moment of redemption. A last we have reason to believe the book's Shakespearean epigraph: "After so long grief, such nativity!"

Felicity, it should be noted, does not make Fox any more discursive than usual. In keeping with the rest of the book, this reunion episode is recounted with an economy that is sonnet-like. Fox never pretends to have told all, or even mostly all. But she does restore to a genre that has become characterized by garrulous frankness the long-forgotten power of discretion.

This article originally ran in the October 29, 2001 issue of the magazine.