Oct 16, 2015

Mr Fox by Helen Oyeyemi

Mr Fox by Helen OyeyemiMr Fox by Helen Oyeyemi

“A battle of words is a battle of stories”.
Helen Oyeyemi

Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr Fox is a novel in stories about a writer, St John Fox, whose female characters tend to meet horrible ends. He’s married to Daphne Fox, whom he emotionally manipulated into never expressing any unhappiness by telling her early on in their relationship that one of the things he loves about her is that she never complains (St John refers to this as “fixing” Daphne, which kind of tells you everything you need to know). Additionally, he’s involved with the possibly imaginary Mary Fox: Mary might be a muse, or one of St John’s characters, or a flesh-and-blood human being of her very own. She takes on different roles in the various stories that compose Mr Fox, but one thing she does early on is tell it to St John as it is. “You’re a serial killer”, Mary says, and then goes on to challenge him about the long string of aestheticised female deaths in his work.

I fell hard for this book: the playfulness and humour, the obvious feminist themes, and the fairy tale connections to “Bluebeard” and “Mr Fox” were right up my alley; to top it all up, Oyeyemi executes her premise with perfect aplomb. I have a soft spot for novels in stories, but not all of them are done as expertly as this. The stories in Mr Fox are all connected, some in more obvious ways than others, but the thing that makes it work so well is that they’re all enjoyable in their own right.

My favourite story was probably the one where Mary Foxe is a young woman whose father killed her mother. He’s now dying of cancer in prison, and understandably Mary doesn’t want to see him before he passes away. She meets St John Fox during a flight, when the woman sitting next to her dies of a heart attack and she’s taken into first class. A romance develops between the two, but when Mary goes to stay at his house in Cornwall she feels haunted by the ghost of his deceased wife, Daphne, who committed suicide. Mary is terrified that St John might have killed Daphne and that the suicide is a cover-up. Daphne’s ghost eventually tells her that no, her death is not on him, and she has the chance to build something based on trust with this particular version of St John.

Of course, the heartbreaking thing is that in the context of this novel, in the context of our world, and in the context of Mary’s life — she had a father who quizzed her daily on a folder full of newspaper clippings filled with violence against women — trust is almost too much to ask. Fear is an entirely appropriate response to a hostile environment, and this story never frames it as anything but. Being able to surmount that to the best of your ability, especially in a world filled with endemic gendered violence, is moving and miraculous. In this sense, Mr Fox does something I love, and which some of my all-time favourite novels do (from To the Lighthouse to The Brides of Rollrock Island): it look at how stereotypical gender roles can be an obstacle to real intimacy between people. Developing equal, trusting, and satisfying relationships requires work for many reasons, one of which is that it often requires you to undo layers upon layers of narratives that naturalise violence and fear.

Throughout Mr Fox, Mary, St John and Daphne attempt to negotiate the terms of their relationships time and again. Acknowledging and respecting one another’s personhood is of course a basic requirement for this. As Mary tells St John,
“I would like to have nothing to do with you for hours and then come back and find you, come back with things I’ve thought and found out all on my own — on my own, not through you. I’d like not to disappear when you’re not thinking about me.”
As the quote I opened with suggests, Mr Fox is also very much about stories. It’s about women — Mary and Daphne both — seizing the narrative, presenting it in their own terms, and giving legitimacy to each other’s stories. Early on in Mr Fox, we get the following glimpse of Daphne’s thoughts:
“The way he talks to me. I thought it was just his manner — I didn’t mind that he never said anything romantic, not even at the very beginning — I was relieved about never having to wonder whether he meant what he was saying. But now I’m starting to worry that this simplicity is contempt, that he picked me out as someone he could manage. I don’t like to give that thought too much air, though. It’d be hard to go on if I really thought that was true.”
To wonder this on your own is incredibly lonely, and to have your sense of reality undermined by denials that go against what your gut feeling tells you again and again can do a lot of damage. This is why my other favourite story was the one where Daphne and Mary Foxe have dinner together: Mr Fox challenges any facile rivalry between the two women; instead, the two confirm each other’s experiences and Mary encourages Daphne to write (the book she describes, Hedda Gabbler and Other Monsters, is one I’d very much like to read).

Lastly, I really love how despite its dark themes, Mr Fox has playfulness and humour in spades. Oyeyemi herself puts it perfectly in this excellent Kirkus interview, which you should all read:
“I’ll be thrilled if [Mr Fox] draws yet more attention to gratuitous feminine death as a strangely inevitable centerpiece to the popular imagination—I’ll be thrilled if it adds to the fund of narratives that question the legitimacy of such a centerpiece.
The aspect that I found most fun whilst writing was the sparks between Mary and Mr. Fox over the necessity of the “death and the maiden” trope. I sided with both Mary and Mr. Fox to some extent, because as a reader and film watcher, I find the death and the maiden trope spectacular when it’s properly done—for example, when it feels organic to the story and doesn’t participate in a dodgy aesthetic. All I ask of a story about the murder of a woman, or the murder of several women, is that it doesn’t imply that her death was beautiful, or that the murdered woman is in some way more beautiful or potent or interesting in death. That’s a terrible lie, and I don’t want to hear it. People tend to be at their most beautiful and potent and interesting when they’re alive.
So in that sense I’m with Mary Fox, who is a zealot about that sort of thing. However, Mary Fox would probably ban all books in which a woman dies, and I wouldn’t go that far. The other side of the argument is that people do these things, kill each other, and you can’t not write about it, and I agree with that. But Mr. Fox is not especially serious—I feel duty bound to warn any prospective readers of this fact—and I think it’s partly because it pokes fun at many of its authors’ notions of romantic love. More than anything I see it as a kind of anti-manifesto.”
Mr Fox is undoubtedly one of my favourite reads of the year — I should have listened to you all and picked it up ages ago. I’ve come across many failed attempts at telling this kind of story in the past, a story about an imaginary woman created by a man coming to life; Mr Fox gets it exactly right, so of course I loved it as much as I detested the film Ruby Sparks. In fact, I think I loved it even more than Oyeyemi’s remarkable White is for Witching, and I didn’t imagine that would be possible at all.

Favourite bits:
“What you’re doing is building a horrible kind of logic. People read what you write and they say, ‘Yes, he is talking about things that really happen’, and they keep reading, and it makes sense to them. You’re explaining things that can’t be defended, and the explanations themselves are mad, just bizarre — 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 scrapping and bowing at work, it was because she had to die, she just had to, it makes dramatic sense, it was because ‘nothing is more poetic than the death of a beautiful woman’, it was because of this, it was because of that. It’s obscene to make such things reasonable.”

Here’s what I learnt from the clippings: that there is a pattern. These women had requested assistance. They’d told people: someone is watching me, has been following me, has beaten me up before, has promised me he will kill me. They’d pointed their murderers out, and they had been told ‘it won’t happen’, or that nothing could be done, because of this and that, etc. I was jumpy in those days, expecting something terrible to happen to me at any moment, without knowing where it would happen to me, or why, or who would do it.

“I told her about one of my favourite villainesses, a flame-haired woman called Lydia Gwilt, who died changing her ways.
‘Of course she did,’ Mary said, frowning. ‘This is worse than I thought. If you make the women wicked then killing them is a moral imperative.’
My first thought was, But they’re not real, and my second thought was, Under absolutely no circumstances can you say that, you’ll hurt her feelings. So I devised a title for the book I was going to write — Hedda Gabbler and Other Monsters, and she cheered up at the assurance that everyone would survive.”


They read it too: Reading the End, Shelf Love, Page 247, you?

12 comments:

  1. Wow. Only about a hundred or so different things making this book wonderful, huh? While I've heard of this book, simply as one of Oyeyemi's, I don't believe I've ever read anything about it at all. I just sounds incredible!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm confident that you'll like it! As Jenny says below, it's written with a lot of joy and that really comes across.

      Delete
  2. Ooh, this sounds so, so good! I really enjoy Oyeyemi's writing style though I am never quite sure if I fully understand her themes and symbolism. Actually, that's false - I am positive I never fully understand what she's trying to say. She's so smart and literary! I'll try this one, even so. Love the feminism that comes through.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I can't wait to hear what you think!

      Delete
  3. I picked this one up at the library as an audiobook,and it was strange and wonderful to hear it out loud, too. At first I wasn't sure which story was "real."

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I love how the stories are all nested within one another, and how their relationship becomes clearer as the novel progresses. It's done so playfully and with such a sense of fun.

      Delete
  4. Lovely review.

    There's a new show called Wicked City coming out in the US; it's a procedural whose hook is that it's set in 1980s LA. There are two billboards floating around—one with the male lead staring directly at the viewer, and one with a woman's front, clavicle to cheekbones (but not eyes), as she's about to be strangled. I'm not unfamiliar with how disposable female bodies are in fiction, but something about that billboard infuriates me.

    So reading something that interrogates this idea sounds very, very good to me. I'm glad you loved it so.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. UGH to that billboard. Like Oyeyemi says, it's the flawed logic of inevitability behind it all that is the most infuriating.

      Delete
  5. After Mr Fox came out, I went to see Helen Oyeyemi at McNally Jackson, and she was delightful. She said that this book was a total treat to write, just an absolute joy -- and I think it really shows. I need to reread!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Aww, I would love to hear her speak! One day, hopefully/

      Delete
  6. I've never heard of the Mr Fox fairytale...googled it up and read it. Yipes! I like the premise of the book, however, and the interesting points of discussion it raises! Love reading your thoughts :)

    --Sharry from xalwaysdreamx.wordpress.com

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you! I love how you then found the fairy tale again in the Ursula Vernon book you were reading (which I really need to get!).

      Delete

Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.