A Writer of Slasher Books Finds More Than a Muse
Review by Aimee Bender
By Helen Oyeyemi
324 pp. Riverhead Books. $25.95.
Helen Oyeyemi’s captivating new novel, “Mr. Fox,” begins with a jaunty spirit and a sense of play. We meet Mr. Fox; he is a writer of slasher books, and he has an assistant, a woman named Mary whom he conjured in a trench during his days fighting in World War I. He also has a wife, Daphne. At some point or other, all three of them write.
Mr. Fox is also a reference to the English folk tale character Bluebeard — a man who murders and dismembers women freely until his wife-to-be, the clever Lady Mary, turns the tables and exposes him.
This book’s Mary (full name Mary Foxe) acts like a muse and is called a muse, but she is more than that, and I actually wish Oyeyemi had kept the word clear out of the book. Mary is mysterious, both tangible and intangible, crossing fluidly between dreams and reality. She is far more involved than a muse, or an inspiration. She’s an alternate life, a safety net — and also the one who knows how best to push Mr. Fox and rip that safety net away.
The premise is established in the first few chapters: Mary is tired of seeing Mr. Fox kill all the women in his books, and seems to imply that he’s avoiding any conflict, any real connection, by opting for easy decapitation. That his murder stories provide an easy out is both funny and believable; Mary the taskmaster is asking him to explore the murkier, scarier territory of human connection pre-death. It’s a satisfying and unexpected reframing of violence toward women — Mary is not only protesting the act itself; she is angry about the artistic dodging.
The two start to collaborate, cautiously, and a sequence of back-and-forth storytelling follows. The reader is left to figure out whose story is whose, as Fox and Foxe spar creatively, making new tales and striving to avoid pat endings. At first the writers, who are also recurring characters in their own stories, don’t even meet in the world of their fictions. They must find their footing: if there is no dramatic death moment, then how on earth do stories go? How do people interact? Through letters, perhaps, but never in person. Through missed meetings, or elusive glimpses, or, once, another murder, because Mr. Fox can’t help himself.
These early pieces reflect the newness of this kind of storytelling for both writers. And in part because of the setup, this section is lighter; there’s a bit of a “solve the puzzle” feeling, as the reader tries to discern who is writing what and when. That solving mode can offer its own pleasures, but it’s also tricky. The pages are enjoyable, and well written, but they don’t yet hint at the riches to come. In a way, this makes sense. The writerly flirtation and competition between Mary and Mr. Fox are mere glances and winks; the two have not yet embarked on a true discussion and investigation of the nature of violence and love. But compared with the rest of the book, the beginning belies Oyeyemi’s gifts. Maybe it’s necessary, as Mary and Mr. Fox are also figuring out the rules, but it took a while to trust Oyeyemi’s intent. Once I did, I was in, fully.
In the middle, Fox and Foxe’s stories, written together, gain gravity and depth. Now the characters can connect, even if these connections are fraught and painful. Oyeyemi never lets go her ability to turn a phrase, but here she uses her powers for the gut-level work, the agony and beauty of passion and love. And the stories are wonderful. Whether it’s a tragedy about a model whose father is dying after having committed a brutal act of violence, or a fairy tale about heart and body and aloneness, or a fascinating romp involving a prep school as we’ve never seen one before, or an unexpectedly moving story of a fox and his lover, Oyeyemi’s writing is gorgeous and resonant and fresh. “The words didn’t come easily,” she says of one character who has discovered her own capacity to write. “She put large spaces between some of them for fear they would attack one another.” Words arethis active — they can harm, they can soothe; they are living creatures, participants in image and tale, just as Mary is, constructed as she is by Mr. Fox’s imagination (or is she?), and even as Mr. Fox is, constructed as he is by Oyeyemi’s.
The violence in these stories also changes from the cartoonish Mr. Fox violence of fairy tales, which is frightening but funny, jokey at the start, to real murder, to armies in occupied towns, to domestic abuse, to a gentle but firm questioning of the varied ways we care for and hurt one another. Here, the book makes a case for itself and its unusual structure that is utterly convincing. Some readers may crave more overt connections between the stories. Yet they create a mosaic between Fox and Foxe, a cracked portrait of love, all the while working as a refracted mirror of the relationship between husband and wife, which has been strained by the dominance of Mr. Fox’s increasingly active fantasy world. His daily life, his regular, ordinary world, becomes more and more relevant, and as the book progresses, the interactions among Daphne, Mr. Fox and Mary gain urgency, and that head-scratching “puzzle” feeling falls away.
Oyeyemi has a talent for writing complex, often villainous situations without imposing judgment. (Even writing “domestic abuse” a few lines back felt a little false — too categorized, too diagnostic for this book.) She sidesteps any verdicts and goes instead to the raw, doing what Flannery O’Connor advises, which is to look closer, to put aside one’s assumptions and instead try to view the world as it is, with curiosity and an interest in describing what one sees. Oyeyemi shows us, and shows us, but her people are allowed to do what they do without her weighing in too heavily. She writes of one of her characters: “The man liked to make things. He took a chisel to stone with kindness and enquiry, as if finding out what else the stone would like to be.” His technique mirrors hers.
In the folk tale, Mr. Fox lures women into his lair to kill them. Oyeyemi’s Mr. Fox used to lure women into his stories and kill them. She, of course, is her own Mr. Fox, and surely she lures us in, too. Not to kill us, not to repel us, but the opposite — to hold us in these stories and give us something along the way, something complicated and genuine. Charm is a quality that overflows in this novel, and it works under its best definition: as a kind of magical attraction and delight. Oyeyemi casts her word-spell, sentence by sentence, story by story, and by the end, the oppressive lair has opened up into a shimmering landscape pulsing with life.
Aimee Bender’s most recent book is “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.”