Mr Fox
 by Helen Oyeyemi

Picador, 2011
First Collection

Awards: Story in this collection, My daughter the racist, shortlisted, 2010 BBC National Short Story Award

"The girl decided that she had to hide her heart somewhere until she was big enough to keep hold of its weight. One night the dead helped her, some stroking her hair and soothing her while others hooked their fingers into her and carefully lifted a strand of steam from her chest."

Reviewed by Tessa Mellas

Helen Oyeyemi’s 2011 release Mr Fox is both a love serenade to the art of fiction and an interrogation of writing. It’s a novel interspersed with short stories, making identification of genre a bit tricky, but who really cares about labels when you’ve got Oyeyemi spinning magic in sorcerous ways. The book is fabulism. It’s realism. It’s damsels suffering beheadings. It’s damsels taking back their heads. It’s a labyrinthine narrative play space. It’s metafictional, intertextual, postmodernist, feminist, yet not overly cerebral. Bluebeard pops in and out in various guises. Foxes recover their former fairytale glory. Characters romp through a few centuries of narrative genres, over three continents, in wartime, peacetime, New York City, London, an old-world minaret-laden village, a Yoruban graveyard, and leave off at the edge of a mythic forest with fated inter-species love.

A summary of such craziness will likely sound trite, but it’s compulsory, so here goes. The book opens in the 1930s in Mr Fox’s study. St. John Fox is an American writer, that old monolithic masculine type. His longtime imaginary muse, Mary Foxe, absent six or so years, pays him a visit. While he swoons over her British accent and professes his love—with his wife just upstairs mind you—Mary berates him for his habit of offing his female characters. She calls him a villain, a serial killer, and says he must change. He confesses he’ll do anything to have her. So she sends him through a narrative gauntlet, setting in motion a game in which St. John and Mary enter the space of the story, becoming characters, pushing and pulling at plots (the Bluebeard tale gets numerous rounds) trying to alter each other’s aesthetics. Meanwhile, the novel chapters are set in “the real world,” where Mr Fox’s wife Daphne, a society type, frets over the fact that her husband holes himself away and seems to have fallen for a sleaze he made up in his head.

Oyeyemi picks up where Angela Carter left off in The Bloody Chamber, taking on the bloodthirsty Bluebeard figure and his alternate egos, but pushing the story further, spinning it over and over again. Oyeyemi traces the tale’s evolution through three key variations— "Bluebeard", "Fitcher’s Bird", and "Mr Fox"—as though attempting to get to its narrative root in order to prove something important about narrative, gender, and love. What Oyeyemi is trying to say, though, is less clear than the book’s many allusions.

She takes up questions of reader-response theory: Who creates the text? Who has authority? Can there ever be an authentic original utterance? She takes up questions about love: What is ideal love? Does love ever endure past the fairy tale ending? Must a person erase all their past loves to be true to the present one? She takes up questions about writing and the nature of stories: Is the writing life torture or the most ultimate source of bliss? What is the responsibility of the author in influencing human action and interaction? How do narratives affect gender roles, relationships, the nature of marriage? In moving from questions to answers, Mary’s words are key.

In the first chapter, Mr Fox tells her, "It’s ridiculous to be so sensitive about the content of fiction. It’s not real. I mean, come on. It’s all just a lot of games". But Mary doesn’t buy it. She tells him, "You’ll always refuse to see—or refuse to admit—that what you’re doing is building a world… What you’re doing is building a horrible kind of logic… You’re explaining things that can’t be defended, and the explanations themselves are mad …"

Oyeyemi seems to take umbrage with the way some men depict women on the page. She reminds readers that fiction does has consequences, that narrative is at the root of humanness, giving us meaning, morals, a map. Additionally, she seems to problematize the idea of the male writer as master, monolith, top-dog genius in contrast to what sometimes is regarded as second-tier womanly fluff. Perhaps, here Oyeyemi joins the likes of Cynthia Ozick and Julianna Baggott, throwing in her two cents in the argument that women writers are often overlooked, the scale repetitively tipped towards men, sliding publications, prizes, and accolades more frequently their way.

Ultimately Oyeyemi takes the pen out of Mr Fox’s hand and has his muse Mary give women back a room of their own. In one of the stories within the novel, hide, seek, a woman called Blue hands a woman called Brown twelve fountain pens, points her to a room, and tells her to write. When Brown stalls, her dead Yoruban ancestors visit. Bluebeard also visits in the variation of Reynardine. They all tell her to write, and in doing so, Brown recovers something she lost.

At the end of the novel, Mary seems to abandon her post as St. John’s muse altogether and switches over to his wife’s side. Mary suggests that Daphne write a book herself. For the first time, Daphne comes to see that she can be more than a submissive society wife. In promising Mary a book, she titles her future work Hedda Gabler and Other Monsters. It is only with this shift that the spark in St. John and Daphne’s marriage seems to return.

Of course, if Oyeyemi is making a case for female writers, it is her own writing that serves as the best evidence of a female writer’s worth. Page by page, Oyeyemi is brilliant, and the book gains strength as it goes. As the book evolves and Mary Foxe takes greater control of the narrative, the writing changes. In its initial most masculine form, Mr Fox’s stories are plot-driven and violent. The women die, and the men move on to new wives: classic Bluebeard. But as Mary takes over the telling, the style becomes more feminine, not in a stereotypically romantic, gushy, domestic way. Rather, the narratives seem to recede back in time to a less citified manhandled landscape, where nature and animals reoccupy a place of importance, where mysticism takes the place of reason and logic. Meanwhile, the prose becomes more beautiful, more mythic, more primal.

Take this female-narrated sentence midway through the book:
I wondered whether within each ant there is another and another and another until finally you reached a cold small chip of the universe, immovable and displeased.
Or this one a bit further on:
Even from the narrow side-streets where damp sand beads and breathes, any window can tell you why they say here the world began with a brother and sister locked in a beautiful circus trick.
Or this:
The girl decided that she had to hide her heart somewhere until she was big enough to keep hold of its weight. One night the dead helped her, some stroking her hair and soothing her while others hooked their fingers into her and carefully lifted a strand of steam from her chest.
Oyeyemi’s luscious breathtaking prose, her talent for holding readers captive with a mighty good yarn, her ability to weave magic, vitality, relevance out of an old fairy tale that seemed long ago to have been used up—all this shows that this very skilled, very young writer, has serious literary chops. Mr Fox is entertaining, smart, and gorgeous. Whether this year’s prize committees give the big trophies to the Mr Foxes or the Daphnes is yet to be said, but regardless, Helen Oyeyemi’s reputation as one of this decade’s biggest literary talents is safely assured.

Read a story by this author in New Statesman

Tessa Mellas is a PhD student at the University of Cincinnati. Her fiction appears or is forthcoming in StoryQuarterly, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Gulf Coast, Fugue, New Orleans Review, Pank, and Washington Square Review. Her book reviews have appeared in Mid-American Review, New Pages, Sycamore Review, and The Short Review.

Tessa's other Short Reviews: Kevin Wilson "Tunneling to the Centre of the Earth"
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Helen Oyeyemi was born in Nigeria in 1984 and moved to London when she was four. She is the author of The Icarus Girl, The Opposite House, and most recently, White is for Witching, which won a 2010 Somerset Maugham Award. Her story My Daughter the Racist was shortlisted for the 2010 BBC National Short Story Award.

Read an interview with Helen Oyeyemi