It has been suggested by certain theorists and thinkers that the postmodern age is over or, at the very least, out of fashion. Tired of endless playful irony, there is a renewed desire for some sincerity, for some human warmth. Which is exactly what Helen Oyeyemi has achieved with Mr Fox. Like Lorrie Moore’s short fiction, Mr Fox employs a postmodern restlessness in terms of form and structure whilst also providing tangible characters who jump off the page with hopeless, desperate humanity. In Mr Fox, flesh and blood life is given to even that which is ostensibly imaginary.
Mr. Fox is a successful writer with a predilection for murdering the women who populate his stories. He is the Bluebeard of 1930s fiction. Mary Foxe is his muse and she is tired of inspiring him to murder. He protests:
‘It’s ridiculous to be so sensitive about the content of fiction. It’s not real. I mean, come on. It’s all just a lot of games’.
But of course, for Mary Fox, it isn’t. It’s the matter of her life. What follows is her attempt to supersede his voice with her own through a series of self-contained short stories where it becomes harder and harder to discern which one of them is in charge of the narrative (one of them, ‘my daughter the racist’, seems to, in fact, be a short story Oyeyemi wrote previously which was shortlisted for the 2010 BBC National Short Story Award). So we get plenty of meta-narratives, pastiche, a cacophony of multiple voices but all these elements come together to produce a gradual realisation of Mary Foxe as the originator of words rather than just someone else’s inspiration. As the novel progresses, the reader also gets to hear from Daphne Fox whose intelligence and sensitivity is largely ignored by her husband. She identifies this as being symptomatic of the times in which she lives in:
‘I’d won a couple of prizes for essays and things at school and a prize for a short story. But that was all so long ago. And it wasn’t hard to shine at that sort of thing in my school; no one really studied hard because it was so unnecessary when you were going to marry well’.
It is this injustice that the novel seeks to address. Rather than being concerned so much with those who write, Mr Fox is concerned with those who are written. Inevitably, although the novel begins from Mr. Fox’s point of view, the most interesting characters are Mary and Daphne, in particularly, the strange affinity they develop towards each other. Daphne’s jealousy towards Mary develops into a sisterly affection whilst Mary encourages Daphne to write a book of her own: ‘don’t talk yourself out of it. You can do it and it’s going to be really good’. The eventual reconciliation of Mr. Fox and Mary is very sweet and suitably understated but what seems to matter more is that Mary finds her independence and that Daphne will indeed write her own book.
Mr. Fox is, in essence, a feminist novel which reclaims the female voice of not only Mary and Daphne, but also, the many female voices that begin to occupy the several self-contained stories within the novel. These female-centred stories tend to lean towards the first person whilst the others are in the third person which is, I think, an important choice that Oyeyemi made. In ‘my daughter the racist’, the female protagonist is told by another female:
‘I think your husband spoilt you. He gave you illusions…you feel too free. We are not free’.
The female characters of Mr Fox refuse to accept this and their telling of their own stories are their own bid for a freedom that is theirs and not simply an imaginary fiction bestowed to them from their patriarchal benefactors. Their voices and their lives, in their own terms.
Any Cop?: Mr. Fox makes a strong feminist statement about who gets to speak for whom and the ramifications of this but it is also a highly imaginative and entertaining novel with an ever-changing narrative. Oyeyemi is quite possibly going to be one of those writers who deserve both mainstream and critical success.