Mr. Fox

mr foxMr. Fox does not know what to do with the women in his books. Or, rather, he knows of only one thing to do with them. He kills them. Roberta saws off her hand and foot and bleeds to death at a church altar. Louise is mistaken for her traitorous brother and shot. And Mrs. McGuire hangs herself because she’s afraid of her husband’s reaction when she burns dinner. But Mary Foxe is out to change all that. Mary, an imaginary assistant and a sort of muse, has decided he’s a serial killer, and she’s going to make him do better.

Mr. Fox and Mary Foxe start writing each other stories—sometimes, in fact, writing each other into stories—and, through the stories, they explore the ways men use women and writers use characters. Mr. Fox has a hard time changing his killing ways, and Mary scolds him for it:

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 man, just bizarre—but you offer them with such confidence. It was barbecue 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 if a beautiful woman”; it was because of this, it was because of that. It’s obscene to make such things reasonable.

This is a book about how stories matter, about how the stories we tell shape our world. Mary Foxe wants Mr. Fox to tell better stories, and by pushing him to do so, she pushes him toward becoming a better man. The early stories, darkly comic and violent, become richer, as the characters try to understand each other, rather than slashing into each other. A complication emerges when Mr. Fox’s wife, Daphne, starts to appear in the stories and to intervene in the relationship between Mr. Fox and Mary Foxe.

Helen Oyeyemi’s books are as much about atmosphere as they are about story. I’ve never been quite sure about everything that’s happening in any of her books, and this one was no different. For example, it’s not always clear which stories were by Mr. Fox and which were by Mary Foxe, although perhaps it doesn’t matter, since it’s all Mr. Fox (sort of). Some of the stories themselves were good on their own, but what I really liked about this book was the way the stories grow and eventually intertwine with life. The writers make the stories and the stories make the writers. And so they grow together, each in their own way.

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10 Responses to Mr. Fox

  1. Jeanne says:

    I did like the way his real wife was jealous of his fictional creation. Or was she “real”? Anyway, some of it was fun. Some was just confusing, like in a dream where things make sense only in the dream.

    • Teresa says:

      I loved the idea of someone becoming real the way Mary Foxe does. When I read Oyeyemi, I just assume some of it won’t make sense, which bothers me with some authors but not with her. I think it’s that the ideas behind the images make sense.

  2. Stefanie says:

    Oh, this sounds great! Onto my TBR list!

  3. I’ve only read her Boy Snow Bird and I was a bit confused by that one too, so it’s good to know that it happens in all her books! This one is on my TBR.

    • Teresa says:

      I haven’t read that one yet (nor have I read her first book, The Opposite House), but all of her books that I’ve read have a similarly strange quality. I just go with it :)

  4. You really do just have to go with it when you’re reading a Helen Oyeyemi book. I need to go back and reread Mr. Fox — I did read it when it first came out, but I’ve found that her books tend to grow on me with successive rereads. I don’t know that I ever get any closer to figuring out what she’s on about in any of them, but I grow fonder of the characters and the writing, for sure.

  5. Lindsey says:

    I had the same feeling reading Mr. Fox and, more recently, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours. I wonder if there are any readers who think they are picking up on everything in her stories.

    Your review plus writing about this book in a recent blog post is making me want to re-read!

    • Teresa says:

      I didn’t like her story collection as much as I have her novels, which surprised me because I love weird stories. I think her particular kind of weirdness works better when it’s sustained.

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