‘I’ll tell a tale of Mr Fox, how he came courting me
He was the finest fellow you could ever hope to see’
Mr Fox – Mr Fox
I did not particularly enjoy Helen Oyeyemi’s previous novel, White is For Witching. It felt a little too studied for my taste, a little too ‘creative writing class’. I don’t particularly like self-consciously beautiful writing and this seemed to fit squarely in that category. Having read Mr Fox, I shall have to go back and reread White is For Witching, as I fear I may have misjudged it very badly. Because Mr Fox is one of the best novels I have read in a long time, and that is not a thing I say lightly.
The story of Mr Fox, Reynardine, Bluebeard, Fitcher, call him who you will, is best summarised as “the usual – wooing, seduction, then – the discovery of a chopped-up predecessor” but rather than opt for a conventional “retelling” of the well-known folktale Oyeyemi deconstructs the story, visiting it again and again from various angles, telling it and retelling it, turning it inside out as she goes. The effect is dizzying; the reader is left uncertain what is ‘real’ and what is not.
To begin with, we have St John Fox, celebrated novelist living in New York with his wife, Daphne. The time is 1938. In walks Mary Foxe, whom St John apparently knows, and she accuses him of being a villain. Fox protests his innocence but Mary continues: “You kill women. You’re a serial killer. Can you grasp that?” Fox, it turns out, specialises in the kind of thriller fiction where women die in a myriad terrible ways. He dismisses Mary’s accusations: “It’s ridiculous to be so sensitive about the content of fiction. It’s not real. I mean, come on. It’s all just a lot of games” (5).
Mary begs to differ and mysteriously transports Fox into what might be one of his own stories, where he becomes the protagonist, a doctor, who beheads his wife to ensure she doesn’t speak, only to find that he misses her presence around the house. When he replaces her head (for it is that kind of story) he finds that she can only repeat the same question over and over. Fox’s response is bafflement, although we know that he has already, so to speak, silenced his own wife:
*She doesn’t complain about anything I do; she is physically unable to. That’s because I fixed her early. I told her in heartfelt tones that one of the reasons I love her is because she never complains. So now of course she doesn’t dare complain. (1)
We might have the impression that St John Fox, famous novelist, is a bit of a shit, and nothing that happens in the next section of the novel is likely to disabuse us of this idea. One can choose to read the story of Mary Foxe, governess-companion to the clever but wayward Katherine, as a version of the story of how she and St John Fox met: an exchange of letters redolent of 84 Charing Cross Road, an agreement that Fox will read Mary’s short stories, followed by several aborted meetings and finally, an incident in which Fox’s secretary burns the stories in front of Mary, supposedly at Fox’s behest.
But gradually uncertainty creeps in: Mary next suggests that she burned Fox’s stories, to punish him for ‘beheading’ his wife. Is it possible Mary Foxe is misremembering the experience? Or that there is more than one Mary Foxe? It even seems that Mary Foxe may be some kind of literary stalker, gaining access to Fox’s study when he is not around, working over his manuscripts. Or does she exist at all? Is she, as Fox himself claims, a figment of his imagination, in which case she seems to be a very powerful imaginary friend who has stepped out of his mind and into material form., so much so that she can even be befriended by Daphne, Fox’s wife.
One can ask what is going on here, and speculate about whether Fox is going mad or whether he has entered a fugue state of some sort. We are in particular invited to consider this option though not by Fox himself. Rather, another avatar of Mary Foxe meets a man called St John Fox who happens to research precisely this thing, and yet that seems all too easy an explanation, not least because one suspects that the St John Fox she visits is not different but playing an unlikely game of deception, luring her to his country house, as of course Mr Fox should.
Perhaps St John Fox’s conscience is troubling him about what he does, but he has no way of articulating his unease except by externalising it. There is one small, telling detail in an exchange with Mary Foxe, in which he becomes convinced that he was once married to her, that she left him, and that when he tracked her down he beat her and murdered her. This in itself is appalling but there is a small detail in the story, a description of how, to persuade a friend of his to tell St John where his wife had gone, St John broke down in tears.
The friend expressed the hope that St John would get his manhood back, i.e. would stop using tears as a weapon, as well as regaining his wife. It hints at an idea of masculinity which until this point in the story remains unexamined, although Oyeyemi takes it up in the very next section, “the training at madam de silentio’s” which in part parodies conventional finishing schools and their preparing women for marriage, but also parodies a masculine fantasy of the woman trained as courtesan, posing the question, how would this seem to a man if he had to go through it himself rather than merely approving of it in women. Why is it, Mary wants St John to ask himself, does he think like this.
The narrative circles round and round this use of male violence against women, examining it in various ways. There are stories which make abstract points about the matter juxtaposed with accounts from the main participants in the ‘actual’ drama. Of all the interpolated stories, there is one – ‘My Daughter is a Racist’ – which doesn’t seem to quite fit. It is an excellent story in its own right but seems to be so tangential to the rest of what is being discussed it is at first difficult to see quite what the connection might be; except, I realised subsequently, it is intended to be the foundational counter-argument to the ongoing insistence that women are entitled to freedom as much as men, and yet even there, the argument is also undermined by the narrator, although she is surrounded by men and women determined to maintain the status quo
Towards the end of the narrative we have Daphne Fox’s account of her first meeting with St John and the reasons why she fell in love with him although he was so very different from what she’d been brought up to hope for, but then also her first meeting with Mary Foxe, who suddenly materialises before her. Through their conversation we see another St John Fox, damaged by his war experiences. Mary Foxe is the dream woman he invented in order to find some way through the carnage he witnessed. But gradually we also see another Daphne, desperate to find some way to express herself – painting, pottery and flower arranging, the traditional hobbies of the idle rich woman, have proved no solace for the silence and disregard of her husband. It is undoubtedly no coincidence that Mary invokes the memory of Hedda Gabler at this point, but I find myself thinking too of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and the ways in which Fitzgerald exploited his wife and mocked her creativity. St John Fox has brutalised his wife mentally in the same way that he has physically brutalised women through his fiction.
We see finally, through the intervention of Mary Foxe, that neither of them has got what they expected from the relationship, perhaps because both of them had such unreasonable expectations – fairytale expectations, perhaps – of what a relationship might involve. Such a conclusion might be perhaps rather trite but it is saved from sentimentality by the horror of the journey all the characters have undergone, along with the reader. The true nature of Mary Foxe herself is left unexplained. The reader can only wonder. The novel, though, is a remarkably inventive exploration of a difficult subject, a novel that demands to be reread in order to fully get to grips with its elusive and allusive nature.