37. News From The World, Stories & Essays by Paula Fox

10 Nov

News from the World, Paula Fox

This is a bad reason to be fascinated by a writer, but Paula Fox is Courtney Love’s grandmother. She gave a child up for adoption when she was young (if I have the story right), and that child turned out to be Courtney’s mother. Love did not grow up with any relationship to Fox, and Google tells me that they dislike each other and have no relationship as adults, but somehow the celebrity gene, or the art gene, or the genius gene was passed on. I find that really interesting. And also, from her work, Paula Fox is obviously a crusty, outspoken old hard-ass, which seems just what Courtney Love would be if she’d had an easier life. And, in the somewhat irrelevant-to-literature annals of my admiration for this family, Francis Bean Cobain seems like a really cool person from her Twitter feed.

The stories and essays in this book are a mixed bag, as collected works by people of general interest often are. The uniting thread is Paula Fox more so than theme. (Fox’s best-known novel is Desperate Characters, which was revived by Johnathan Franzen writing for Harper’s, about 15 years ago, and then returned to print.) In News from the World, there are a few short stories about dysfunctional relationships or nasty people that seem fine but forgettable, and some essays on our crappy modern world that are true, more or less, but feel like a cocktail-party rant. “The Stop of Truth,” for example, is about the censorship of children’s books, and how we’re turning them into pablum (true, for what it’s worth, but not even a good title). And “Unquestioned Answers” seems to be about how the word “like” and sloppy language is ruining society. Both themes make the reader glad for Paula Fox that she probably doesn’t use the Internet.

Fox was married to the literary critic Martin Greenberg, brother of the art critic Clement Greenberg, and knew a lot of famous people, so there is a fair amount of “that time I saw Frieda Kahlo” in the essays as well. (Also, another fun fact I didn’t know: Apparently it’s possible that Marlon Brando is Courtney Love’s grandfather!)

But then there are the true gems of the type that made Franzen fall in love with Paula Fox’s work, and made her the once-big-deal she was in the 60s and 70s. The first essay, “Cigarette” is one of the most cleverly constructed and resonant personal essays I’ve ever read, with the loosely linked topics of a freak accident and a first cigarette offering a startling view of the role trauma plays in our lives. And the story “Grace,” about a dickish man who adopts a dog when his girlfriend dumps him, goes somewhere new every few paragraphs. Here’s a moment of representative strangeness. The narrator is describing the kinds of things people say to John, the new dog-owner, in the park. And then a paragraph begins:

“‘Look at her tits. She’s certainly had one litter. And some of her whiskers are white,’ observed a youngish woman wearing a black sweatshirt and baggy gray cotton trousers. As she looked at John her expression was solemn, her tone of voice impersonal. But he thought he detected in her words the character of a proclamation: ‘Tits’ was a matter-of-fact word a woman could say to a man unless he was constrained by outmoded views.

What if, he speculated, inflamed by her use of the word, he had leaped upon her and grabbed her breasts, which, as she spoke, rose and fell behind her sweatshirt like actors moving behind a curtain?”

We don’t yet realize, when this passage comes, that John has been unhinged by the loss of his girlfriend, but on second read, it becomes obvious that nothing is accidental in a Paula Fox story. The news from the world may not be good, but she’s able to make wonderful writing out of it, when she sets her mind to it.


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