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- Mr. Fox
- Riverhead, 336 pp.
Not every fairy tale has a happy ending. St John Fox is a successful American author who has made a career of writing stories about women who are gruesomely murdered by their husbands or lovers. His (imaginary) muse, Mary Foxe, wants to cure him of his murderous ways—and she also wants to gain a measure of independence from her creator. The two of them match wits by writing each other into a series of nested tales of their own devising, but Mary raises the stakes of the game when she reaches out to Mr. Fox’s real-life wife, Daphne, who becomes suspicious of her husband’s intentions and begins to engage in some storytelling of her own.
This metafictional conceit frames the nine stories that comprise Helen Oyeyemi’s latest novel, Mr. Fox. Each story is a variation on a European fairy tale about a serial wife-killer (known in various traditions as “Mr Fox,” “Reynard,” or sometimes “Bluebeard”) who is eventually outwitted and exposed by his intended victim and bride-to-be. While the book’s frame tale—a struggle between a writer and his own fictional creation—calls attention to the troubled relationship between authorship and authority, Oyeyemi elegantly reshapes each of the interwoven stories to blend this postmodern critique with age-old fears and anxieties about the potential for self-loss and self-destruction in our most intimate relationships.
Although St. John insists on seeing his storytelling as “just a lot of games,” for Mary, what is at stake in their “playing” is no less than the power to shape and craft her own identity: “I would like to have nothing to do with you for hours on end 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,” she says. “I’d like not to disappear when you’re not thinking about me.” Though they are presumably rivals, Mary’s complaint mirrors those of St. John’s real-life wife, Daphne, who suspects that the only reason her husband married her was because he thought that she was “someone he could manage”; and wishes she could just meet him on “some level ground.”
We get an idea why Mary (and Daphne) might feel the need to seek out lives of their own once the storytelling begins. The early stories focus on the unintentionally destructive effects of male authority: Dr Lustucru opens with the title character casually beheading his wife, “thinking to himself that he could replace her head when he wished for her to speak”; however, when he attempts to do so, he discovers that she has become an entirely different person. Other stories also take unexpected, bloody turns: in Fitcher’s Bird, Mary Foxe is cast as a shop clerk obsessed with fairy tales whose passion for the genre is based on her belief that “all was overcome by order in the end…If you were the first of three siblings, then you were going to make a big mistake, and that was that. If you were the third sibling, you couldn’t fail.” However, when she puts her faith (and her head) on the line, she discovers that the laws of the fairy-tale world do not necessarily translate to her own.
If Fitcher’s Bird teaches that a woman who willingly becomes the subject of someone else’s story risks both literal death and the loss of one’s personal identity, The Training at Madame de Silentio’s shows that men are equally in danger of becoming trapped by stories and conventions not of their own making. In a neat reversal of the Reynard myth, the students at a school that molds young men into “world-class husbands” for purchase by the wealthiest bidder discover a murderer locked away beneath the campus grounds—a personification of all of the human weaknesses and desires that are forcibly discouraged and suppressed in order to create cookie-cutter Prince Charmings skilled in exemplary masculine arts like “Strong Handshakes, Silence, Rudimentary Car Mechanics, How to Mow the Lawn, Explosive Displays of Authority, Sport and Nutrition Against Impotence.”
However, not all the dead (or deadly) characters in Mr Fox represent harm, evil, or sinister intent. The short story Like This blends the Reynard tale with elements of Yoruba myth, recasting Reynard as a medium through which the protagonist can communicate with her ancestors. In the short story What Happens Next, the deceased wife of a solitary scholar encourages a beautiful (living) young woman to return her husband’s love. Here, the dead do not threaten the living heroes and heroines, but instead act as guides, supplements, or extensions of them. Instead of threatening to steal away the protagonists’ personal freedom, the dead represent the elements of the traditional past that have become flexible enough to adapt to the present and live on comfortably in a modern-day world.
While not all of the tales in Mr Fox are incorporated with the frame tale in an equally seamless fashion (the short story My Daughter the Racist seems only tangentially incorporated into the story cycle), the overall ease with which Oyeyemi blurs the boundaries between characters, time periods, and literary styles shows how her stories come to life and thrive in the space between. With a style reminiscent of Angela Carter or Italo Calvino but made entirely her own, Oyeyemi explodes a range of generic conventions and the expectations that come with them. In this fourth novel, Helen Oyeyemi shows that she has hit her stride as a writer of remarkable empathy, intelligence, and wit.