Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi
A talking fox is probably up to something sinister. From Aesop's fables to Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox, the animal has gotten a bad reputation as a liar or thief. Helen Oyeyemi plays with this idea in her new novel Mr. Fox, which features two cunning creatures pitting their wits against each other. St. John Fox (a human, not an anthropomorphic animal) is a successful novelist with a penchant for killing his heroines in a variety of gruesome ways. Mary Foxe is his imaginary muse, who is beginning to come to him with stories that illustrate her disgust with his misogyny, rather than merely inspiring him to write more of the same. The novel meanders between scenes of St. John's real life in New York City during the 1930s, where both Mary and St. John's wife Daphne are quite aware of their supporting roles, and stories that are the creation of the melding of St. John's mind and Mary's influence that range dramatically in time and place, but always hint at the overarching struggle between the two that sews the novel together. When Daphne decides that St. John's preoccupation with an imaginary woman is too much for her to handle, she gets involved in the game of stories, as well, and the competition becomes more heated as St. John must decide whether to pursue his dream woman or the flesh and blood woman knocking on his office door.
This mesmerizing set of tales juxtaposes the romance and violence of fairy tales with that which occurs in the real world. Foreboding bits are borrowed from the story of Bluebeard and from Grimm's Fitcher's Bird, but the novel reaches deeper than these already dark tales. Mr. Fox, with his extreme arrogance and habit of treating his women roughly, bears a striking resemblance to several other foxes in literature and legend, particularly the French fox Reynard and his cousin Reynardine, a fox featured in an Old English ballad that seduces women and brings them back to his castle to meet their grisly fate. The Fox(e) stories begin as rather simple doomed romances with allusions to these stories and characters, but the fairy tale elements become more prominent throughout the book until it's nearly impossible to distinguish what's real and what's imaginary. In an early story Mary, as a mousy nanny and aspiring writer, strikes up a flirtatious correspondence with Mr. Fox, only to find his true nature disappointing. She later manifests as a lonely romance novelist falling for her mysterious downstairs tenant, and in another story, she's a loving wife stalked and brutally beaten by her jealous husband. Later on, she's a girl with an excess of feeling that she hides in a stone altar, just waiting to be found. As reality fades into the background, Mary and Daphne grow stronger, and, one hopes, St. John will begin to understand that they are formidable foes.
Oyeyemi wrote her first novel, The Icarus Girl, before she turned twenty, and in the six years since its publication, she has written three more novels, all to critical acclaim. Her third novel, White is for Witching, was a finalist for the 2009 Shirley Jackson Award and won the 2010 W. Somerset Maugham Award. Mr. Fox is the author's least straightforward novel, and arguably her most ambitious. The interplay of real characters with imaginary and mythological ones is so seamless and elegant that it's easy to read the novel as a modern fable, but the issues of violence and creation underlying both the linear story and the tales within this framework merit further contemplation. Mr. Fox is truly a cunning tale, and perhaps Oyeyemi herself is the most cunning of all, persuading her readers to fall for these characters in light of their flawed, violent relationships. I found the book both lovely and disturbing; as a modern woman, I assumed that I would be far too smart to romanticize violence, and I know enough about feminism to understand that most fairy tales, with their defined gender roles and predictable punishments for "bad" girls, are anything but romantic. Even so, as I read what was essentially the same story played over and over in different keys and styles, I found myself surprised when the ending so often stayed the same. While the book's concept is unique, the prose is pretty much perfect, and the allusions are rich, this is what has stuck with me most since reading the book: I've been tricked into identifying with a victim that I never imagined I could, and I've been forced to confront assumptions about women and men and violence that I never knew that I held. By hiding such a nuanced exploration of such a complex relationship in this charming fugue of stories, Oyeyemi has proven herself a master of her craft.
Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi