From this week’s column.
The perspective of the outsider is a useful tool for social commentary, satirical or otherwise. What would an alien think if she (or he, or they, or whatever gender alien lifeforms do or don’t have) were to observe the human race, what conclusions would she come to about our lives and what we value?
Then there’s the fate of the innocent thrust into society. The same rules apply; her observations as an outsider about how we function are still enlightening, but we know that disaster is coming. We know that by not understanding how people are, she is in danger of becoming a victim.
Lots of literature, much of it for children, has anthropomorphised animals falling victim to the human world without ever really understanding what is going on. The rabbits in Watership Down foresee the destruction of their warren by humans and leave to seek a new home. The Animals of Farthing Wood has a group of woodland creatures also left homeless as humans build housing over the wood.
And so it’s natural that the foxes in George Saunders’s Fox 8 should be curious and worried over a sign that says “Coming soon, Fox View Commons”. Luckily, one among them can read the sign. The eponymous Fox 8 has learnt to speak “yuman” by eavesdropping on a mother telling stories to her children; from them he learns that humans have misconceptions about bears and chickens, but that they are capable of “luv”. Unfortunately, he does not learn what a “mall” is.
So much could go wrong here. Humans destroying animals’ natural habitats is a well-worn theme, and with a mall to additionally signify crass capitalism this has all the signs of a polemic. And Fox 8’s misspellings and misconceptions about the English language could so easily become twee, Particularly since Saunders has said elsewhere that it was initially intended for a children’s book. And yet.
Much of Fox 8’s humour comes from its language and the things that Fox 8 has misheard. Saunders takes full advantage of the potential for wordplay that this offers. “Whoa was us”, Fox 8 describes the shocked and mourning foxes as their forest is dug up. He speaks often of “the Curator” and “all of Curashon”. The spelling does not become less atrocious as the story progresses, but far from grating it begins to feel organic. Clearly this is not how a hypothetical fox who learnt to read from listening to children’s bedtime stories would speak, but it’s how Fox 8 would speak.
And for all its humour, Fox 8 is tragic. Because our narrator never really stops believing that human beings are capable of providing him with a reasonable explanation for the awful things that have happened to him. At every stage he is far too willing to give us a chance, and at every stage the reader knows we’re going to fail him. “It made me feel gud, like Yumans cud feel luv and show luv. In other werds, hope full for the future of Erth!” he says, of mothers kissing their children.
That hope is almost completely eroded by the end.
“I know life can be gud. Most lee it is gud. I have drank cleen cold water on a hot day, herd the soft bark of the one I luv, watched sno fall slow, making the wuds kwiet. But now all these happy sites and sounds seem like triks. Now it seems like the gud times are mere lee smoke that, upon blowing away, here is the reel life, which is: rok hats, kikking, stomping. Every minit with no kikking and stomping now seems like not a real minit.”
Yet even now the whole story is framed as a letter to humanity. Fox 8 still thinks we might have an explanation.
Is all of this shamelessly exploitative, like putting the death of a puppy into a movie? Probably. “A gud riter will make the reeder feel as bad as the Yuman does in there Story”, explains Fox 8. And at that, Fox 8 is incredibly effective.