At first, I was under the impression that Helen Oyeyemi’s fourth book was going to be a short story collection; then I heard it was a novel. Now I’ve read Mr Fox, and it turns out to be a mixture of the two: a novel built around (and largely told through) short stories. We begin in New York of 1938, when the writer St John Fox receives a visit from his (imaginary, yet in a sense perfectly real) muse Mary Foxe, who has come to protest at Fox’s propensity for killing off the women in his fiction. She takes him into a series of stories (some by Mary, others by Foxe), variations on the tale of Bluebeard, in which the two of them play a variety of roles; at the end of this odyssey, Mary hopes, Fox will have changed for the better.
Fox’s attitude is that fiction is fiction, and that what he writes has no bearing on what he thinks in the real world. Yet reality may be closer to Fox’s fiction than he realises; it’s clear from the first that he holds certain contempt for women, as evidenced by this comment about his wife Daphne:
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)
Oyeyemi illustrates this connection by literally bringing the real and fictional together. When Fox wants Mary to shut up, it’s no idle request; as she’s a product of his mind, he can make her unable to speak—there’s nothing unreal about that in the context of the novel. And, since the book is almost all stories—indeed, we’re plunged into the stories before we have a proper handle on the ‘main’ narrative—the in-novel fiction becomes the default ‘reality’, and hence not as insignificant as Fox would like to think.
As well as examining how attitudes might slide into violence, the stories of Mr Fox explore different ways in which two people may love or otherwise relate to one another, from the yearning for a fairytale ending, to imagining what someone you’ve never met is like, to living in silence. The variety amongst the stories is quite something, as is the number of different registers in which Oyeyemi writes. One of the earliest tales stays close to the first setting, casting Mary Foxe as a budding writer who corresponds with St John Fox and may (or may not) eventually meet him; but others range further—we see Mary and Fox as the mistress of a finishing school for young men and the prisoner held captive in the school’s lake; a young woman in our present day who was scarred by her father’s murder of her mother, and the psychiatrist she meets on a flight; and even as the mother and soldier from ‘My Daughter the Racist’ (shortlisted for last year’s BBC National Short Story Award), which takes on a new layer of meaning as part of Mr Fox.
Fairytale and fabulation sit happily alongside more realist narratives, united by the two protagonists (or their analogues) and an underlying concern with stories—for it’s through the mode of story that Daphne Fox ultimately finds her voice, and St John Fox starts to learn better. Fox may start off thinking it’s only fiction, but, in Oyeyemi’s novel, there’s no ‘only’ about it.