Helen Oyeyemi penned her first book, The Icarus Girl, at 19. Now on novel number four, the frustratingly precocious writer has cooked up Mr. Fox, a story about a literary-world love triangle that’s fleshed out with folktales and reads like a short-story collection. The presentation is scattershot, and the characters sometimes too self-consciously cute, but there’s a bloody beating heart underneath all the postmodern playfulness.
As with the hero of Woody Allen’s story “The Kugelmass Episode,” St. John Fox’s love is real, but its object isn’t. The charming, roguish 1930s novelist doesn’t seem especially interested in what his wife Daphne wants, but after somehow summoning out of thin air his perfect, fictional counterpart, he finds there’s no ignoring her needs. Specifically, Mary Foxe needs St. John to stop offing the female characters in his books. Edgar Allan Poe said that there’s nothing more poetic than the death of a beautiful woman, but unlike Leo Tolstoy or Gustave Flaubert, St. John seems to kill them more out of boredom than necessity. And apparently the only way to reform St. John is for Mary to pull him into her fictive world.
“I seemed to have accepted some challenge. Only I had no idea what it was.” Fox remarks, before being sucked into a series of loosely connected vignettes where he and Mary are reincarnated again and again as star-crossed lovers. The setup would be head-scratching enough as it is, but the stories are broken up by chapters set in the real world, where a desperate Daphne Fox snoops around, trying to catch her cheating husband dead to rights.
Oyeyemi has given herself a lot to tackle thematically: The way people turn their lives and loves into narratives, the choice between excitement and stability in relationships, and the disturbing synchronicity between the myths about Bluebeard, Fitcher’s Bird, Mister Fox, and Reynardine, whose characters all appear in some form or another here. The individual stories themselves tend to be oblique and sometimes confounding. Why, for example, does Oyeyemi’s 2010 short story “My Daughter The Racist” appear in the middle of the book? Add to this general muddle the novel’s abrupt, unsatisfying ending, and Mr. Fox starts to look like too much book crammed into too few pages. Fortunately, though there’s a lack of rigor to the novel’s alternating structure, the sketches themselves are concise, funny, and moving, with some bracing moments of ultraviolence thrown in for good measure.
In one of the best chapters, Charles Wolf and Charlie Wulf have been shanghaied into attending Madame de Silentio’s school, where young boys are transformed into flawless husbands. They’re spiritual vessels for St. John and Mary, and though they don’t intend it, they set loose a madman who goes on a gendercidal killing spree that sets the surrounding villages panicking. With seeming effortlessness, Oyeyemi quickly, efficiently sketches in the details of an entire world and sets it spinning, only to completely abandon it after 14 pages. That’s what makes Mr. Fox such a paradoxical read: The novel taken as a whole feels wafer-thin, even as the individual chapters are dense, deep, and disturbing.