News from the World: Stories & Essays
by Paula Fox
Reviewed by Dawn Marlan
News from the World is a slim collection of stories and essays written over the course of Paula Fox's long, distinguished career. Hailed by Jonathan Franzen as one of the best novelists of her generation, Fox provides a glimpse, in these short works, into the sensibility and craftsmanship that has earned her such a devoted following. Most characteristic of her work is her unusual capacity to treat human suffering with unflinching precision. This is especially evident in her treatment of a theme that recurs throughout the volume. In stories ranging from an account of her relationship with her brother-in-law, art critic Clement Greenberg, to one about a man's visit to his dying, estranged father, Fox meditates on various forms of alienation with subtlety and attention, revealing the ways in which this state always implies a desire for belonging. As her characters strain toward and away from intimacy, Fox wrests insight from bleakness, exposing an unlikely hopefulness lurking within experiences of alienation.
This is not to make a claim for hidden happy endings or for redeeming morals, however. Because she writes with such unusual incisiveness about subjects that feel vaguely sordid, Fox's stories always shock a little. "Grace," for instance, centers on a man's relationship with a dog, bought to compensate him for a woman he lost to his own pedantry and ambivalence. Here, Fox conjures some pathos for a man unable to resist working against himself. In "By the Sea," children witness a scene of violence that they had first perceived as one of affection. In another haunting story, "News from the World," a 40-year-old wife and mother falls in love with an old man in a village where an oil spill encroaches upon the shore. One might say that the story is about home as a form of exile, though it remains elusive, a political warning, an anti-romance and an allegory about what threatens and sustains us.
Although these stories refuse to beautify flaws or bury nightmares, their overwhelming tenor is the strange, stubborn optimism and empathy of someone who has known every form of heartbreak. If a writer of such marked clarity insists on elusiveness, it's because her optimism depends on approaching the world in all its complexity. In "Other Places" Fox makes a plea that we should not be "too impatient to allow ourselves to be puzzled" or to "reduce a mysterious human person ... to a heap of psychological platitudes."
But the best example of the optimism she wrenches out of sorrow is in her memory of seeing a young boy weep in the theater while the rest of the audience laughed, because in the "comic" scene of the hero's expulsion, this boy alone discerned suffering. Testifying to the possibility of empathy, his tears worked on Fox for more than 52 years. In "Unquestioned Answers," arguing both against belittling the experience of children and the Disneyfication of the world, 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?" To maintain courage without telling lies is Fox's rare and impressive achievement.