No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, January 12, 2013

2012/61: Mr Fox -- Helen Oyeyemi

"What you're doing is building a horrible kind of logic. People read what you write and they say, 'Yes, he is talking about things that really happen," and they keep reading, and it makes sense to them. You're explaining things that can't be defended, and the explanations themselves are mad, just bizarre – but you offer them with such confidence. It was because she kept the chain on the door, it was because he needed to let off steam after a hard day's scraping and bowing at work, it was because she was irritating and stupid, it was because she lied to him, made a fool of him, it was because she had to die, she just had to, it makes dramatic sense, it was because 'nothing is more poetic than the death of a beautiful woman', it was because of this, it was because of that. It's obscene to make such things reasonable." [location 1515]

Helen Oyeyemi riffs on the folktale of Reynardine (a man, who may also sometimes be a fox, given to seducing and abandoning / murdering young women) and on the notion of the writer's Muse. (I was reminded repeatedly of Robert Graves' assertion that 'Woman is not a poet: she is either muse or she is nothing', though I think he qualifies this by saying that a female poet is her own muse.)

Mr Fox opens with an encounter between Mr Fox, a successful writer, and his muse Mary Foxe. No relation, except that he invented her -- or believes that he did. She accuses him of killing off his female characters: he tells her that it's ridiculous to be so sensitive about the content of fiction. She counters with a challenge, says it's her turn now. And the rest of the novel twists through the tales they tell one another, from literary New York in 1938, to a spinster in an attic, to a boys' school in London, to an African village, to a European forest where a woman rescues a fox ...

Threaded through these variations are recurring themes: violence against women, misogyny, infidelity, betrayal. There are also at least two love stories. Mr Fox is in love (and lust) with Mary: but Mary would 'like not to disappear when you're not thinking about me' [loc 2317]. To complicate matters, Mr Fox is married, and his wife Daphne suspects the involvement of another woman. It scarcely seems relevant that Mary is an invention. She's eaten up Mr Fox's attention.

The end of Mr Fox is not especially cheerful -- unsurprising, considering the beheadings, poisonings, stabbings etc that have occurred -- but, nevertheless, there are happy endings aplenty.

I think this would make a very good film, though personally I gain more pleasure from reading Oyeyemi's fluid, flexible prose than I'd get from watching the threads unspool outside my head.

And I'm hoping that the book Mr Fox picks up, with a steamboat on the cover and 'Vampires in the Deep South', is Fevre Dream rather than one of Anne Rice's ...

Afterthought: I may be wrong, but though there's a lot of violence in the novel, I don't believe there's any sexual assault; also, much of the violence -- at least in my recollection -- is inflicted with knives or swords. Please let this not be Freudian. Though I fear that it is.

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