Mr Fox (2011) by Helen Oyeyemi
Having sampled Helen Oyeyemi's work before (I read her third novel, White is for Witching last year, and enjoyed it), I knew this book was going to be unconventional, and sure enough, it is. As writers of fairly mainstream fiction go, she is clearly an author who likes to 'think outside the box'. In White is for Witching, one of the four narrators was a house, another a girl addicted to consuming inedible materials. In Mr Fox, one of the protagonists (arguably the main character) is an imaginary muse, and the story weaves its way in and out of fiction and reality, exploring the connections between the two.
Mr Fox is about an American novelist called St John Fox, and his aforementioned muse, who takes the form of a beautiful British girl called Mary Foxe. St John enjoys killing off women in gruesome ways in his stories, and one day, Mary visits him with the intention of persuading him to stop. He is unwilling - insistent that fiction is only fiction, and has no connection to how people choose to behave in the real world - and what follows is a game between the two of them, as they tell stories that map out one another's fates, sometimes directly, sometimes obscurely. These short stories, which are inserted into the narrative as separate chapters, are mainly variations on legends and fairytales, and they vary from the straightforward and realistic to terrifying fantasy. Meanwhile, there is an ongoing narrative concerning St John's (real-life) marriage to Daphne, who suspects him of having an affair - and of course, his 'lover' is actually Mary. The actual and the fictional begin to overlap more and more as the story progresses, until it's difficult to tell which is which.
The book is about - and named after - St John Fox, but it's Mary who emerges as the central character. Of course, she's a figment of St John's imagination, so it could be argued that she is simply a facet of his character. There are points when she appears to be a product of Daphne's insecurities, too, becoming more physically similar to Daphne as the latter finds her confidence growing towards the end of the book. But Mary is fleshed out far more than the two 'real' characters; often the focus or the narrator of the short stories, she is given a distinct personality which the reader is encouraged to identify with. She is likeable and human, in contrast to both St John (a classic chauvinist) and Daphne (rather dull and stupid), though they all have their own recognisable, cleverly written voices. The stories themselves are largely avant-garde and sometimes threaten to tip over into self-indulgence. One - in which the characters are referred to as Blue and Brown - reminded me so much of Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy that I can only assume it's intended as an homage. In others, Oyeyemi reworks the old folk tale of Bluebeard, much as Angela Carter did (better) in her superlative collection The Bloody Chamber. The longest story, 'What Happens Next', is clearly evocative of the tale that gives Carter's book its title.
I liked the message of the novel - that violence against women in fictional contexts validates its use in reality, and that the creators of these fictions ought to take responsibility for the consequences of their work. But because the narrative is so broken up, it's difficult for the story to resolve itself into a cohesive whole, and it's ultimately unsatisfying. The message, which is so dominant in the stories and Mary's admonishment of St John, is lost towards the end, sidelined in favour of the comparatively tedious exploration of St John and Daphne's marriage. For me, the book would have worked better simply as a series of short stories, or as a pure battle of wits between St John and Mary, with the marriage plotline left out. Mr Fox tries to be two things at once - a story about the realities of love, and a series of fantastical, mind-bending tales - and although it manages to bring elements of both together quite eloquently in places, for example the significance of stories in resolving the problems between St John and Daphne, it doesn't quite succeed fully in either.