“They tried their best with each other, but it just wasn’t any good.”
At first glance, the premise of Helen Oyeyemi’s fourth novel Mr Fox looks like that of a more upmarket version of Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair. Mary Foxe is a fictional character, a woman created by middle-to-upper-class 1950s American writer St John Fox. So it’s something of a suprise for all concerned when she springs to life and begins berating her creator for killing women in every book he writes. “You’re a murderer,” she says, in a quote that every reviewer uses because it stands out handily on the back of the book, “can you understand that?”
And so Mary and St John play a game, a game that soon becomes more than a game: a game that becomes a war, over representation and the right to speech and a voice and an identity.
As you’ve probably realised by now, Mr Fox has very little to do with the light metatextualism of The Eyre Affair; Oyeyemi’s book is something a lot less directly fantastical and a lot more self-consciously “literary”. You see, the game that Mary and St John play is a game of stories, making Mr Fox a sort of novel-in-stories linked by a framing narration, its plot a function not of narrative but of metanarrative. Think, perhaps, of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: a loose collection of tales disparate in mood, setting, character and even genre, linked only by the recurring appearance of a man (perhaps even archetypal Man) and a woman (archetypal Woman). In some ways, the novel reads as an endless iteration of the fraught relationship between the sexes in today’s world: an endless iteration of enclosure (there are echoes throughout of the title’s referent, the English folk myth of Bluebeard), repression, resistance, emotional unfulfilment. In fact, the way the novel moves through these stories reminds me a little of George Herbert’s The Temple: it not only uses form, genre, setting, etc., but uses it up, moves through it and discards it as a useful model for harmony, taking onwards only slim and hard-won threads of insight.
The novel, I think, does a lot with the concept of constructive conflict. Its metanarrative is, of course, the clearest articulation of this: the novel is a collaborative effort arising from Mary and St John’s conflict, two different voices working against each other but also together to explore, discard, argue, create, their stories individually often full of violence and pain (violence that is, moreover, performed on each other; there’s a sense attested to in the novel in which Mary and St John are both creating their stories and participating in them) but as a whole working towards a consensus of sorts. And the uneasiness of the hard-won truce the metanarrative reaches in the end is reflected in the state of St John’s marriage to his long-suffering wife Daphne: Mary is gone, and Daphne has a voice – she’s decided on Mary’s suggestion to become a writer – but the threat and the promise of Mary’s return, as Daphne’s friend and St John’s lover, is a kind of instability that’s shared between Daphne and St John. Equality of voice is both necessary and a generator of uncertainty, of difficulty.
And this is reflected in the stories themselves. There’s a tale of a Yoruba woman whose relationship with her husband is filled with bitterness and anger and conflict; but, taken from him, finding her voice in telling tales of her ancestors, she comes to the realisation that that conflict, that emotional violence, was something valuable about the relationship. And there’s the strange and lovely final tale, in which the metanarrative finds its apotheosis: a fox falls in love with a human woman, and eventually becomes human through their shared love and understanding. It’s a powerful metaphor about finding a way to mutual fulfilment, and the story isn’t without violence, the fox clawing and biting the woman simply because that’s how foxes work.
It is a heartfelt and heartwarming tale, but the book’s faith in constructive conflict raises some potential problems when its apparent validation of emotional violence veers close, perhaps, to the validation of domestic abuse. Where is the line, in fact, between what the book sees as the constructive collaboration of artistic conflict, the mutual violence in the struggle for equality, the difficult truce of emotional fulfilment, and actual straight-up emotional manipulation and misery? The line between “helpful” violence and destructive violence? But I think, perhaps, that these questions are exactly signs of the very precariousness of the understanding that Oyeyemi’s Man and Woman reach; signs of the difficulties behind us in the struggle for equality, and the difficulties that are yet to come, for both parties, both betrayed by a system of enclosure and stereotype that resists at every step real emotional fulfilment. Mr Fox is a difficult book, formally and ideologically, but I do think it’s a rewarding one, one which opens up a very nuanced and complex and valuable conversation about discrimination.