Why aren’t people talking about Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr. Fox? There’s so much crammed into this short book that I want to read it again even though I just finished it. The book is so good that critics should have been gushing like Twi-hards over it.
St. John Fox is a not a nice man. He’s hard on his wives. He kills his female characters left and right. He doesn’t have close friends. The only person who will really talk to him is not actually real. You see, St. John made up Mary Foxe. For years, she’s been his muse but now even Mary is fed up with him. She can’t stand to see another female character die on a page for no reason. So she challenges him. As if this wasn’t weird enough, Mr. Fox gets even weirder from here.
Mr. Fox is the kind of book that I used to have no patience for. It’s unabashedly experimental. There were places that I had no idea what the hell was going on. St. John and Mary get into each other’s heads and into each other’s stories. They wrestle for control. The pronoun “I” is used interchangeably between the two of them. You can’t rush through Mr. Fox, because it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s just a story.
What helped me get through the book and reach an interpretation* were the symbols and folklore motifs that Oyeyemi scattered through the shared stories. Foxgloves are everywhere. Reynard shows up frequently and Bluebeard’s name gets dropped. As Mary tries to rehabilitate St. John the serial killing author, their stories highlight the problems with gender roles, the power of stories to tell truth, about the need for humans to find partners, about the flexibility of the mind.
It’s funny that I read Mr. Fox after listening to the latest episode of Dear Book Nerd. In episode 19, one of Rita Meade’s questions concerns a philosophy professor who dismissed fiction as lies. As I listened to Meade and her guest overcome their outrage and answer the professor’s charge, I wanted to chime in and say 1) even Plato told stories and 2) even though a work of fiction isn’t true, it contains truths. Mr. Fox is a perfect example of the ability of fiction to help us confront uncomfortable facts and truths and work through our problems.
* Because if any book could support multiple interpretations, it’s Mr. Fox.