Helen Oyeyemi at London Literature Festival, 11 July 2011

Suzi Feay’s interview with Helen Oyeyemi at the Southbank Centre last night provided a good example of how hearing an author speak about her work can cast new light on a book. After an opening section in which Oyeyemi discussed her love of fairytales as a child, and how she first began writing (crossing out the parts of Little Women that she didn’t like, and writing in her own version—and in a library copy), she read the tale of ‘Mr Fox’ (the English version of Bluebeard), as collected by Joseph Jacobs in the 19th century; followed by the opening pages of her novel Mr Fox, which draws on different versions of the Bluebeard story. Even though I’d already read that book, hearing the author reading aloud from it was almost like encountering it for the first time again.

At the time of my original reading, I was struck by the sheer range of Mr Fox; but that was brought home to me again here when Oyeyemi talked about the many influences that went into the novel. It wasn’t just the many different versions of Bluebeard, or all the writers whose work had an impact (I’m reminded once again that I really should read Angela Carter); It was also that there were ideas in Mr Fox on which I hadn’t picked up—for example, Oyeyemi employed the 1930s New York setting partly from a love of noir, and partly to explore conceptions of masculinity that emerged from the First World War. The discussion made me want to go back to Mr Fox to see what else I could find in it.

Feay also asked Oyeyemi about her creative process, but I gained the distinct impression that even the author herself found it rather mysterious; Oyeyemi talked about her characters’ often doing surprising things, and how she attempted to study for an MFA, but found it too restrictive. When writing Mr Fox, she wasn’t even sure who would want to read that kind of book. I’m pleased that there are people who do, because I am coming to think that Oyeyemi’s is one of the most singular imaginations at work today; and this interview and reading only cemented that view.

Helen Oyeyemi, Mr Fox (2011)

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.

Elsewhere
New Books interview with Helen Oyeyemi
Some other reviews of Mr Fox: Emma Mould for Bookmunch; Justine Jordan for The Guardian; Marianne Brace for The Independent.