Mr Fox by Helen Oyeyemi
Reviewed by Andy Sawyer
30 September 2011
Mr Fox, aka Reynardine appears in British folktale and folk song as the suave predator, seducer of young maidens, whose teeth (in the words of the version of the song immortalized by Fairport Convention) "did brightly shine/As he led her over the mountains, . . . that sly bold Reynardine." His European cousin is Bluebeard, from the seventeenth century literary fairy tale by Charles Perrault in which a young bride enters the forbidden room in her husband's chateau and discovers the bloody dismembered corpses of her predecessors. In Helen Oyeyemi's mosaic novel he appears as St John Fox, successful American writer with a penchant for tales which involve the slaughter of young beautiful woman: an Edgar Allan Poe for the 1930s.
St John's muse, Mary Foxe (note the different spelling: she claims descent from the John Foxe whose Book of Martyrs was one of the more gruesome offerings of the sixteenth century) doesn’t like this. She wants him to change. "You kill women" (p.4), she tells him. It's just a game, he replies. Mary doesn’t think so.
Mary is a sexy British woman who, in the first line of the story, is revealed as "the last person on earth I was expecting to see" (p.1). This is not surprising, as Mary Fox is imaginary. St John's wife Daphne, however, is not. And she is threatened by her husband's obsession with another woman who, imaginary or not, seems to be taking clear and physical shape. This is not a conventional novel of adultery, but nor is it a conventional fantasy. It is a collection of stories which are about storytelling—the stories we tell ourselves, or our loved ones, as well as stories composed as "art." What saves it from being somewhat twee metafiction is the skillful way Oyeyemi makes it a three-way dance between St John, Mary, and Daphne, and the way she has drawn upon the folktale elements (not all from the European traditions) to provide a tapestry of motifs and images.
Reviews of Mr Fox have used "magical realism" rather than "fantasy" to describe it. In many ways, this is not surprising. It is a very literary novel, about the process of writing and imagining, and part of it could be seen as being about what Mary is complaining about, the way women, and particularly beautiful women, are victims for readers' pleasure. As Edgar Allan Poe put it in his "The Philosophy of Composition," "the death . . . of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical subject in the world." Mary questions the psychology behind this. At one point, she points out to St John that he "just recounted one of your stories to me as it if was something that you already did" (p. 89). Mary, like many of the women who feature in the "Mr Fox" songs, turns the tables on the writer. What if he dies in the next story to be told. After all, "It’s all just a lot of games." There are stories about a "School for Husbands" where two pupils (one called Wolfe, another called "Wulf") release a prisoner (Reynardine) who goes on to commit a series of serial murders. In another scene, it is Mrs Fox (the wife, not the muse), who, using the Edgar Allan Poe quotation, accuses St John—and by extension all stories of the Bluebeard mode—of excusing in his fiction the acts portrayed by it: "You're explaining things that can't be defended . . . but you offer them with such confidence. It was because she kept the chain on the door, it was because he needed to let off steam after a hard day's bowing and scraping at work, it was because she was irritating and stupid, it was because she lied to him . . . it was because she had to die, she just had to, it makes dramatic sense" (p. 107).
Part of the book, however, is more domestic than this; a comedy in its own right. Daphne Fox discovers references to "Mary Foxe," notes about her on her husband's desk. Is he having an affair? What does he mean when he says that this woman, about whom he is thinking so obsessively, is imaginary, that he made her up? What does this actually mean in terms of the kind of relationship a wife can have with a husband? Should Daphne herself have an affair with the husband of her friend Greta? And when Mary Foxe appears to Daphne and offers her advice, suggesting that she herself has a writing talent which should be nurtured—who is whose muse? The final two sections, the first narrated by Daphne Fox and the second, the last story entitled (in lower case like all the "titles") "some foxes," which may be written by any of the narrative voices featured in the book, suggest a sense of reconciliation, of coming together, of the failure of the idea of an abstract "muse" in favor of drawing our inspiration (and love) from our real relationships.
Mr Fox is not an easy book to get a handle on. Some of its sections are given titles, as stories in their own right. Others flow on from previous scenes. Some have an attributable narrative voice—St John, Mary, Daphne—others not. Some, such as "my daughter the racist," set in Middle Eastern country afflicted by Western occupation, are standalone stories in their own right, others refer to characters or themes which will be clarified later: the name "Pizarsky" of a character in an early section told from Mary's viewpoint is also the name of the friend's husband who (St John thinks) Daphne is falling for. Its folklore and fantasy elements carry an undercurrent of danger which may override its moral warning: "that sly bold Reynardine" remains a magnetic figure. Mary Foxe is not a protesting victim but someone who is clearly enjoying the game. There is a story about the encounter of a Yoruba woman with Reynardine ("monstrously cruel, but sometimes . . . he can show kindness" (p. 82)) which tells us that stories must be told and ends in the still ecstasy of the tomb. Helen Oyeyemi is a writer who understands the ambiguity of wit and the darkness of glamor.