The Violent Mr. Fox


art by Julie Morstad

By Ryan Joe

It’s hard not to be beguiled by the teasing wit in the opening chapters of Mr. Fox. Helen Oyeyemi’s novel begins when an enigmatic firecracker of a woman named Mary Foxe surprises the novelist St. John Fox by appearing in his study. At first we assume she’s his mistress.

Later, we learn she’s a muse Fox himself invented and who has somehow been conjured into reality.

And as a muse, Mary has a problem. St. John Fox, author of lurid thrillers, has a habit of killing his female protagonists.

For St. John, it’s violence in lieu of real intimacy or human connection. He ostensibly loves Mary – which complicates his relationship with his neglected, dissatisfied wife Daphne. But Mary sees through him: “Oh you don’t love me,” Mary said. She undid the collar of her dress and bared her neck. “You love that,” she said.

The two begin writing stories through which St. John slowly works out his own issues with emotional intimacy. Soon Daphne starts writing herself, at Mary’s behest. And in writing, each experiences a transcendent such-and-such ending with…

Well. Let’s just say that if Wes Anderson were a therapist, this is exactly the sort of thing he’d prescribe.
Okay, I’m being a little snarky here.

There’s a lot I liked. Oyeyemi is enraptured by the telling of tales and different sections of her novel evokes the epistle, the romance, the potboiler, and – most notably – the fable and fairy tale. Each chapter takes place in a different time, from the point of view of a different character.

Mr. Fox is a display of Oyeyemi’s authorial virtuosity, which she uses to great effect in the construction of a psychological puzzle. Each chapter is a story written by either St. John, Mary, and later Daphne – though it’s not always clear which character has authorship. You have to piece it together looking for clues, generally in the way the men and women of each story interact.

Complicating the issue is that the characters will often write each other into their stories. So what is a “real” interaction? What is entirely fictional? Again, it’s not always clear and part of the pleasure of reading Mr. Fox is trying to figure it out.

Now if only this fucking book added up to anything. The complexities of the narrative would have been better served around a more dramatic threat than a broken relationship. Part of the problem is that St. John and Daphne aren’t really interesting people – unlike Mary Foxe, whose presence always energizes the novel. So do I care, ultimately, whether two boring people get together? Can’t say I really do.

I wonder if the problem is mine, however. I began this book after Donald Trump won the general election. I’m not in the mood right now for twee little puzzles, or stories where the power of creating fiction helps us work through our emotional distances. Today, that conceit seems so artificial. It’s not Oyeyemi’s fault – nor is it a denial of her powers as a writer – but the playfulness of Mr. Fox seems like a relic of a different time.

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