Last night I had a conversation about fairy tales at Paige’s party, and it reminded me of this book by Helen Oyeyemi, which I wrote about oh three years ago or so. I reprint it here because I stand by my recommendation; Oyeyemi has written a new novel, Boy, Snow, Bird, that Dana also recommends even though it’s a more conventional novel.
Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi
Penguin: Riverhead Books 2011
Very highly recommended
Dana is a very very fast but very very picky reader. It’s quite uncommon for her to give an unqualified endorsement to a novel she’s read, and so when she gave one to Helen Oyeyemi’s newest novel? novella?, I had to sit up and read it for myself.
She’s right. Mr. Fox is a—pardon me—fantastic book, but I must confess that I was initially put off by the first few chapters. The style seemed clunky, artless at times, but then it seemed that another author took over, and the book suddenly upgraded its prose.
Not an accident. Oyeyemi reminds me of another of my favorite authors, John Barth, who has the chameleonic ability to adopt varied styles and perspectives to create postmodern rabbit holes of competing narratives. The clumsy moments at the beginning reflect the (male? American?) immaturity of one of the two or three main characters of this book, and the prose deepens and ripens as it twists through permutations of relationships across genres, settings, time periods, and thematic conclusions.
Mr. Fox, like its vulpine motif, is a wild, elusive book. At its center is a love triangle between a 1930s American author, his imagined muse, and his wife, but it doesn’t just take a high-concept idea and tweak a familiar plot. Mary Foxe, the concocted muse, challenges St. John Fox, who has made a good living writing semi-lurid thrillers, to a series of stories to confront his self-absorption and misogyny. The traditional narrative arc is mostly tossed away in favor of a recursive examination of love, guilt, faith, and growth in the landscape of narrative possibility, particularly within the subtextual template of the Bluebeard tale (Mr. Fox is the name of an earlier folky incarnation of Bluebeard).
It’s somewhat tempting to describe the book as a kind of anthology of short stories, but that doesn’t quite do it justice. The framework that Oyeyemi crafts, and the accumulating truth that develops with each chapter, completes the significance and elevates the power of each story. Chop it up into its component stories, and each story becomes bereft of its sense and value.
This is a book worth re-reading, worth writing notes to yourself as you read. A lot of the reviews focus on the play of gender politics, but it struck me that it was as much about finding one’s voice as a writer after being a reader, resolving and syncretizing the contradictory elements within oneself, finding a footing in the roil of the myth and literature that informs you and hems you in. The reviews also nod to how precocious and prolific Oyeyemi is—she’s young (26?—kill me now), the child of Nigerian immigrants, from a hardscrabble neighborhood in London—but it’s a testament to her accomplishment with this book that it’s only a nod.
New York Times (recommended)
Fantasy Matters: goes into interesting detail about the reading and research Oyeyemi did for this book
I wanted to tell a straight story that stayed within a logical time frame and location, but it was just impossible. There’s something dynamic in the relationship of the two characters, even in the original fairytale—they battle with words, it’s a battle over who dictates reality, and it became necessary for reality to go elastic in order to show what’s at stake.
Vogue: very brief but also revealing
I started off wanting to write a Bluebeard story, and I planned to have my heroine encounter a wife-killer, to see what she would do about it. But first I had to get to know Bluebeard, get as close as he’d let me, so I read several different versions and interpretations of the Bluebeard story, which is how I came across the English version, collected by Joseph Jacobs in 1892. In the Perrault version, Bluebeard’s wife denies having seen all the bodies in the Bloody Chamber—she hopes that by denying the other corpses she’ll save her own life. But in the Jacobs version, Lady Mary speaks out. Mr. Fox denies being a killer, but Lady Mary doesn’t back down, and it ends by proving that what she says is true, in the most brilliant way. As soon as I read that story, I wanted Mr. Fox as a protagonist, and Lady Mary became Miss Mary Fox for me. So I had two loving adversaries. But my Mr. Fox is already married, and the dynamic between him and his wife was an entirely different matter. The characters set the agenda as I wrote, and quite a lot of the book surprised me. If the book has an air of knowing its own mind, I think that’s because it does.
Oyeyemi has also published a story in The New Statesman (“i live with him, i see his face, i go no more away”), but I think it only illustrates what I mean by her individual stories seem so much lesser divorced from a whole.