Helen Oyeyemi, Mr Fox

Why is it that everyone of my generation seems to achieve greatness in the early- to mid- 20s? Reading Helen Oyeyemi it’s tempting to (for my own sake) decontextualise her; turn her into one of the Great Writers of Our Time and forget that she is all of ten months older than me and multiple books into her career – so far into her career, in fact, that her writing has passed the raw potential stage and moved into a sort of polished finishedness.

I read Mr Fox soon after it was published and thought it was one of the better things 2011 had produced. I reread it last month and found myself appreciating it even more. Here’s last week’s column on it.

 

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There’s something deeply intimidating about authors who are close to one in age. Helen Oyeyemi is not thirty yet and she’s published four novels, the first of which (The Icarus Girl) was written while she was still in school. 2009’s White is for Witching was one of the creepiest, most stylish novels I’d read in a long time. Last year’s Mr Fox was even better.

Mr Fox isn’t really a novel in the traditional sense of the word. It’s a collection of interlinked stories, some of which exist within one another, and which frequently return to the same set of characters. There’s St  John Fox, the title character, a novelist writing at any point between the 1930s and the present, depending on which story you’re reading. His wife Daphne, alive in some stories, deceased in others. And then there’s the mysterious Mary Foxe, sometimes real and sometimes fictional; at times St John’s harshest critic, at others his muse and lover.

Mr Fox, we learn, has a penchant for killing off his female characters. Oyeyemi makes the connection with Reynardine, the half-man, half-fox creature of an old English ballad which is itself a part of a tradition of foxes as trickster figures. Reynardine is known to lure beautiful women to his castle. From here it’s an easy step to the Bluebeard myth, which is invoked multiple times over the course of the book. Mr Fox’s treatment of his fictional women is the source of a constant tussle between him and Mary Foxe. “You’re a serial killer”, accuses Mary right at the beginning. It is of no avail for St John to protest that these are all games, that they have no bearing on real life. Mary herself crosses the border between reality and fiction by making herself a body and Oyeyemi makes it clear that the two are intimately linked. One of the book’s many short stories (possibly written by St John himself) tells of a man who chops off his wife’s head to stop her from talking. He misses her, and sews the head back on, but she has been damaged and can only repeat the same words over and over. It’s a fable, but it takes on a new and ominous significance, coming soon after St John’s own confession that he “fixed” his wife – silencing any future complaints by praising her early in the relationship for not complaining.

What St John’s stories do, according to Mary is to build “a world … a horrible kind of logic.” These tales of women being murdered, decapitated, silenced, turned into excuses for dramatic action rather than the actors themselves, all these come together to create a real world in which this treatment of women is seen as normal, rather than bizarre and inexplicable. “It’s obscene to make such things reasonable.”

Mr Fox’s concern, then, is the position women occupy in fiction. The women often try to counter this with their own stories – the Mary Foxe who corresponds with St John Fox in the 1930s is a writer of short stories, and at a late stage in the story she is seen convincing Daphne Fox to write a novel of her own. There’s a blurring of identities between these characters that goes further than their surnames- in one version of events Mary Foxe’s stories are burnt on St John’s orders, while in another she is the one burning his work. What this also means is that it becomes increasingly hard to vilify St John, even when by the book’s logic he is a serial murderer. Because, while women are the clear victims of the world St John’s stories (and others like them) create, the men suffer as well. Two young boys who free Reynardine have their lives blighted by the killing spree (targeting women, of course) he embarks upon. St John’s own relationships are blighted by the world he has created, yet Oyeyemi leaves us hope that these characters can somehow put this history of violence behind them and go forward in love.

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