Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The romantic writer, the unruly muse, and the reality of the wife

Mr. Fox
by Helen Oyeyemi

Generally speaking, most fiction worth pursuing is on my radar, but somehow both Helen Oyeyemi and her latest novel, Mr. Fox, passed me by completely until they showed up on Audible.com’s Best Audiobooks of the Year list.  (And rightly so, reader Carol Boyd gives a standout performance.)

Mr. Fox is different.  It is the story of the love triangle between a writer and his unruly muse (Always an excellent starting point!) and his flesh and blood wife.  But don’t for a minute think things are as straightforward as all that.  The love triangle and the muse’s struggle for independence are merely the base of a novel comprised of constantly shifting stories, each of which feature an iteration of writer St. John Fox and his imagined perfect woman Mary Foxe.  In one, he’s a psychologist and she a model.  In another, they are children in an African village.  In one he’s an actual fox and she an old woman.  The imagery of all things foxy is pervasive, from foxes both human and animal to foxglove flowers and foxholes.

Here is an illustrative exchange between writer and muse:
’Mary, I think I know what we’re trying to do with this game of ours.’
‘Tell me.’
‘We’ve been trying to fall in love.’ 
She raised her eyebrows.  ‘With each other?’ she asked coolly.
‘Would you let me finish?’
‘With pleasure.’
‘We’ve been trying to fall in love, yes with each other, but we’ve been trying to take some of the danger out of it so no one ends up maimed or dead.  We’re trying for something normal and nice.’
Mary folded her arms.  ‘That is not what we’re trying to do.’
‘Oh, what then?’
‘Your wife loves you.  Turn to her properly.  Stop fobbing her off and being a counterfeit companion.  It would be good, if after all this, just once you wrote something where people come together instead of falling apart.  Just show me you can do it and I’ll leave you alone.’
‘But I don’t want you to leave me alone.’
As you can see, the dialogue is witty as hell, and aside from the brilliant dialogue, the book is a joy to read from start to finish.  Oyeyemi’s prose is lovely.

As much as I read, there is an element of free association when I consider books.  This novel has an unusual structure, but it’s nothing I haven’t seen before.  I found myself thinking of Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler.  The two novels are completely different, but each features a base story fleshed out by many changing tales that, just as you get into them, end suddenly.  Actually, Oyeyemi’s version isn’t quite that cruel.  There is a completeness or arc to each of the stories contained within Mr. Fox, but still be prepared for a novel comprised of different stories connected only by themes, and what the tales themselves reflect upon the internal lives of the three individuals at the center of the novel.  What an amazing way to illuminate her characters!

What Oyeyemi has done is impressively complex and sophisticated without being in any way onerous for the reader.  In fact, there is a lightness of tone, and a slight air of whimsy to the proceedings despite frequently heavy subject matter.  Mr. Fox is full of fable, fairytale, and elements of magical realism.  There is a delightfully comic and romantic core to this tale, and yet, in addition to romance, these stories feature recurring themes of violence against women, death, and the pain of love.

Oyeyemi is a delightful discovery!  With three prior novels and surely a long career ahead of her, I look forward avidly to exploring her work further.


  1. I read about this, in the NYT Book Review I think, and have it on my library list.

  2. I will look forward to hearing what you think of this, SL.

    Knikki is reading this now. (I saw her briefly a couple of nights ago.) She loves the writing, but finds the book much more confusing than I did. I'm looking forward to her eventual review.