Mr. Fox: A Novel by Helen Oyeyemi (New York: Riverhead Books, 2011. 336 pp)
Helen Oyeyemi is the author of The Icarus Girl; The Opposite House, which was a nominee for the 2008 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award; and White Is for Witching, which won a 2010 Somerset Maugham Award.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Riverhead Books. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising”.
In general, I recommend living under the Occam’s razor principle. It urges its followers to submit to the simplest explanation among competing ideas. The philosophy promotes succinctness; it praises specificity and as few assumptions as possible. Sometimes, the hardest possible task is to take a complex idea and present it in simple terms. For me, Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr. Fox offers a complex idea and she fails to whittle it down into simple terms.
A Love Triangle
Mr. Fox centers around three characters: St. John Fox, his wife Daphne, and imaginary Mary Foxe.
An accomplished writer and struggling through a fourth marriage, St. John Fox defines his brand of writing with violence. His characters tend to project gender tension through violence.
“’Everyone dies.’ He smiled crookedly. ‘I doubt it’s ever a pleasant experience. So does it really matter how it happens” (141)?
Additionally, Mr. Fox is not the most pleasant of people. In fact, his relationships with women are strained in particular.
“Little Miss Foxe,
If you’d really been doing your homework you’d know that I am the last person in the world to consult with about your writing. It surprises me that you’re able to make reference to the January New York Times piece about my third divorce without also recalling the February piece that described me as a ‘suffocating presence across the breakfast table… harsh destroyer of the feminine creative impulse’” (24).
Mr. Fox’s current wife, Daphne, is as normal as normal gets. She provides no excitement for Mr. Fox and he often finds escape in his stories.
As an avowed admirer of the feminine form, St. John Fox creates the perfect woman in his imagination: Mary Foxe. She is beautiful; she is smart. She is not a fan of his violent writing style. Take for example this section of prose from one of his stories:
“And without further argument he unsheathed the sword and cleaved Miss Foxe’s head from her neck. He knew what was supposed to happen. He knew that this awkward, whispering creature before him should now transform into a princess—dazzlingly beautiful, free, and made wise by her hardship.
That is not what happened” (79).
Daphne soon becomes concerned with her husband’s frequent inveigled actions in his study. Upon confronting St. John about potential infidelity, she learns of his odd behavior with his imaginary woman.
“’Daphne. There is no girl on the side.’
‘Say whatever you want, just drop her. Please.’
‘I can’t,’ I said. ‘She’s in my head’” (85).
Should Daphne be relieved? Or should she be concerned that her husband has become involved in a relationship with an imaginary person?
Things become even more problematic for Daphne when Mary Foxe materializes for her as well.
“I looked at the ownerless shadow on the floor and I saw something that was trying to take form, and I felt bad for it. I felt sorry for it” (234).
Soon Daphne and Mary bond over their mutual disdain for St. John. Together, they turn the tables on the wretched writer, forcing him to choose between his perfect image of a woman and his imperfect but perfectly loved wife.
On Complexity and Confusion
Truthfully, Mr. Fox is a difficult book to follow. Oyeyemi slides between reality and St. John’s fiction. The narratives of Mary Foxe and St. John are manifested in a collection of stories meant to represent St. John’s work in literature.
At the same time, Oyeyemi builds the narratives of Daphne, Mary, and Mr. Fox in reality. Aside from a chapter indicator, it is sometimes difficult to understand which narrative plane you are reading.
Oyeyemi writes in an attempt to illustrate a shift in power from the masculine to the feminine. But the narrative is so complex that many will miss her themes.
For this reason, the Occam’s razor applies to Mr. Fox. No matter how excellently Oyeyemi writes and no matter how important her ideas are, the overly complex presentation causes confusion. Oyeyemi is a talented writer and I look forward to her next work. If you are willing to jump into complexity, give Mr. Fox a shot. But, if you want an easy read, look elsewhere.
Verdict: 3 out of 5
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