Writers can be a very strange lot. Especially the dark, handsome ones whose every work has someone dying, often gruesomely. Usually a woman. Quite often someone’s wife. But often she doesn’t stay dead. And the doomed character is not really based on the author’s wife; she’s based on his muse. Who isn’t real. Even though he’s in love with her. The author, that is.
I have to admit, I was very confused when I first started reading Helen Oyeyemi’s novel Mr. Fox. It wasn’t the writing – it was obvious from the onset that the writing was gorgeous and understatedly gracious even while dealing with surprising and even shocking events. What was confusing was figuring out the relationships, and the casual violence that was as common as it was extreme.
She walked up to my desk and picked up one of my notepads, read a few lines to herself. “Can you tell me why it’s necessary for Roberta to saw off a hand and a foot and bleed to death at the church altar?” She flipped through a couple more pages. “Especially given that this other story ends with Louise falling to the ground riddled with bullets, the mountain rebels having mistaken her for the traitorous brother. And must Mrs. McGuire hang herself from a door handle because she’s so afraid of what Mr. McGuire will do when he gets home and finds out that she’s burnt dinner? From a door handle? Really, Mr. Fox?”
Mr. Fox is St. John Fox, a well known, enigmatic American writer of slasher stories; Mary Foxe is his muse. She inspires him, she pushes him, she entices him and she puts him in his place. He adores her, he fears her and he enjoys being her mentor and patron. They spar, constantly. They are perfect foils for each other. She challenges him in a way that the writer in him cannot resist, and through her goading, and their back and forth competitiveness, conventions and genres and genders are questioned, subverted and picked apart. She is also an independent and opinionated figment of his imagination.
Let me repeat that: Mary Foxe isn’t real. But she isn’t real like fairy tales aren’t real, like how folk tales aren’t real, just like the folk tale-like stories penned by both Mr. Fox and Ms. Foxe, which are interspersed with “real life” in the novel, are reflections of what the mind conjures, what the imagination uses to prove its point. Yet just because fairy tales aren’t real doesn’t mean that they don’t have a huge impact in our lives, culturally and personally. Fairy tales and folk tales sometimes can seem hyper-real, in fact, producing deeper and more horrifying emotions (or more satisfaction) than real life ever could. Just like Mary does with St. John.
Yet Mary is so pervasive, so impactful, so tactile, that it is hard to envision her not existing. (An imaginary writer using her imagination to craft imaginative stories in order to prick a real writer’s imagination? ) St. John’s wife, Daphne, certainly believes Mary exists, or rather, she suspects there is another woman in her husband’s life; that he is having an affair even with no real tangible evidence and after continuous protestations of innocence on his behalf. But as Daphne continues to search for evidence of her husband’s infidelity, she is drawn further into his world – which includes Mary. And since Mary has come to be in order to pique any kind of status quo, it is she who ends up being the aggressor in what turns into an unlikely ménage-a-trois.
This would all seem so improbable if not anchored by Helen Oyeyemi’s fantastic prose. St. John’s intellectual suaveness, Mary’s forthrightness, Daphne’s wistfulness, all swirl and blend and flow beautifully from Ms. Oyeyemi’s pen.
Jonas isn’t afraid of me. God knows I’ve tried to frighten him in my time, jumping out from behind doors and screaming shrilly, prank-calling him when I knew he was at home alone, bookmarking his favorite psalm with a Tarot card – the hanged man. He’s never been scared of me, so he’ll never run. I’m glad, so glad, of that. I’ve tried to show gratitude. But what can I do for Jonas? Last summer I spent almost an hour blowing dandelions off their stems towards him, so that he had a chance to wish for everything he wanted. He was very polite about it, but it can’t have meant much to him. Jonas thinks about eternity and other things that make wishes seem tiny and silly.
It is the clarity of the writing, the scarce but elegant use of words and phrases that keep the off kilter and bizarre circumstances of the novel from becoming morbid and freakish. In fact, as Mary manifests herself more and more into reality, the feel of the book becomes lighter, more hopeful, more full of potential in what had been lives that seemed to be drifting apart and submerging into the mundane. It’s not that there necessarily is more clarity in the narrative, but that there is a pushing back of the boundaries of what can be imagined and what can be embraced, and a relief brought about by doing so.
Be bad. Be wicked. And you should worry. But don’t.
No, Mr. Fox is not a traditional novel in the sense that plot and character development follow a standard arc with exposition, action, conflict and resolution at the end. It jumps, it cuts back on itself, you’re not always sure whose voice you are hearing, whose story is being told. You’re not completely convinced that that which you have determined to be imaginary truly is, or that which seems to be concretely anchored in reality was not a subliminal subterfuge. But resist the urge to apply too much empirical skepticism and you will be greatly rewarded for having allowed this unlikely fairy tale to unfold.