Mr Fox, by Helen Oyeyemi

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(In 2012 I arranged with a site to review the books up for the Fantasy Clarke. Plans changed and the coverage got scrapped, but I still have the reviews, so I’ll put them up.)

Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr Fox is about the relationship between the titular writer, his wife Mrs Daphne Fox, and his muse Mary Foxe. While it starts in New York in the 1930s, the novel quickly escapes the bounds of this setting and the linear marriage-plot the presence of this triad initially suggests. The bulk of Mr Fox runs largely unbounded through shifting, alternate-reality permutations of these core characters, making arguments about what violence against women in art means, about the nature of stories, and about identity and rebirth in a patriarchal, colonial world. Although Mr Fox isn’t marketed as genre, the strategies by which it achieves the shifts and juxtapositions which enable it to conduct its literary discussions are baldly fantastic. Mr Fox can be read and appreciated by people interested in fantastic and/or literary fiction.

Mr Fox is a book I should have loved. The prose is energetic. Its feminist and postcolonial themes are engaging. I love the idea of coming to know or to engage with characters through fragments of their potential lives. Star Trek: the Next Generation plays with this concept for several episodes in its last series to good effect, though perhaps importantly, we already know and are invested in the characters involved. Mr Fox sacrifices straightforward characterization and linear narrative in order to sustain this framework and to develop itself as a feminist novel of ideas. That’s understandable, however I don’t think the trade-off ultimately justifies itself. The shifts don’t reveal new aspects of the characters or the arguments in play so much as retread familiar ground.

After the book establishes itself structurally and beds in, the sections either rehash not-that-illuminating things I already know about these characters/second-wave-feminism, or seem like entire non-sequiturs. One section, “My Daughter the Racist”, which has been previously published as an independent short story, seems to slough off the formula of reworking our central characters entirely. While the story is deeply interesting in its own right, its inclusion disrupted the novel’s thematic project and weakened its sense of drive. By the novel’s end, I was left unaffected–following archetypes I couldn’t possibly know around an awkward party of a plot where things seemed to incline towards happening and then fizzled out because no one could decide on what movie to watch, what game to play, what story to tell. The gently disappointing, inevitable ending comes upon us like fucking Cranium being brought out yet again.

All of this would be less consequential if the book had been really intellectually engaging. Mr Fox is trying to essay the possibilities of gender and sexuality, but it feels anachronistically and stiffly heteronormative. As a feminist or a fantasy text, Mr Fox is less provocative than Angela Carter’s Bloody Chamber. This a problem as Mr Fox has over thirty years and a ‘wave’ (which it doesn’t really seem to reflect) on that collection. As an heir to this tradition (Is that fair to say? It seems to situate itself in this rather than alternative contexts and trajectories of feminist writing.), Fox really should have pushed harder and used its conceits to generate productive conversations. The book’s languid circling of well-handled blog-fodder questions like ‘what does it mean to kill women in novels?’ enacts the retrograde motion feminist discourse as a whole has suffered in the public sphere.

One permutation of Mary Foxe is a model. She’s a university graduate, presumably in her mid-twenties, and she enjoys a relatively comfortable lifestyle. She blows off gigs to suit her emotional needs, she calls ‘her lawyer’ (additionally difficult to do in the UK, where she lives, given their generally more highly-specialized conception of practice-areas, etc.). She doesn’t like to travel much, so it’s good that she doesn’t have to. The book’s depiction of modeling is troubling, and about as high fantasy as a herd of dragons. For me this seemingly nitpicky criticism actually highlights the book’s lack of materialist engagement with the stuff of women’s lives, which contributes to its limited success as third-wave feminist text.

Sometimes a weird blind-spot regarding ‘those bitches in collusion with Beauty Culture, rabble rabble’ can blind otherwise thoughtful people to seeing the women involved as anything but powerful and privileged, when that’s really not necessarily the case. In contrast to Mary Foxe’s life, the modeling industry routinely exploits underage women. They are almost always younger than this character, consequently less educated, and often from developing nations with comparatively weak currencies. These young women are very often hugely in debt to their agencies, forced to travel the globe at their behest chasing what work they can get (often unpaid, undertaken in hopes of garnering prestige that might get them paid work in future, or paid only ‘in trade’–designer clothing destined for ebay). What look like high-paying contracts are actually undercut by weeks and weeks without work.

When it comes, the work can be gruelling and demeaning. It can pressure models to make serious compromises about what they’re willing to do with their bodies. Models often suffer incredible sexual harassment as a matter of course. Models are, with few exceptions, entirely without access to the lifestyle of freedom and ease described in Mr Fox. Empowered supermodels are to models as lottery winners are to people who buy tickets, and were largely the product of a very different, now long-vanished, state of the industry. This is not to condemn the fashion industry and everyone involved, but to note that modeling has these issues, and that its female workers need basic labor protections they don’t currently receive. It’s weird that feminist problems in the modeling industry, which have had decent coverage, seemingly didn’t merit a quick google–after all, a major character is a model, and her work is relevant to the plot.

Maybe Mary Foxe is lucky enough to be doing catalogue work almost exclusively. This might pay better and be less itinerant. Though in this competitive industry, even JCPenney will want its insipid salmon-and-sickly-flesh colored cardigans photographed on a woman who’s done Italian Vogue (for free) once or twice, which is the sort of coup a model might land after years of underpaid high-fashion work. Just as one does not simply walk into Mordor, one does not simply say ‘I choose you, comparative ease and financial security of catalogue modeling!’ and have that obligingly pop out of the career Poké Ball. Maybe Mary is also getting work very regularly, despite getting on in Model Years (for a model, Mary, old enough to have graduated college, is old). But even if all of this is true (lucky, lucky Mary!), her charmingly described London flat and her laissez-faire work life and economic situation seem improbable. The choice to assign Mary ‘modeling’ as an easy, monied career doesn’t just seem cliche, under-researched and unrealistic, it seems insensitive. Perhaps these distortions are intentional and there to serve the story, to emphasize the relationship between beauty and power/agency. But even if we give the author that credit, it’s difficult to see what these specific distortions (which many readers might well not recognize as such) are accomplishing, and the otherwise naturalistic tone of this section would seem at odds with such a choice. A novel about women, art, the use of women in art and power that ignores the basic economic situation of female art-workers isn’t.

Mr Fox never properly becomes the novel it sets out to be. It’s like Dick Whittington setting out to become Lord Mayor of London and ending up working as a teller in a Barclays in Southwark. That’s fine, I guess, but what a waste of a girl in drag and a talking cat familiar. Yet despite its problems and its failure to realize its potential, Mr Fox is the best feminist fantasy thinkpiece/novel in recent memory. Because it’s the only one in recent memory. (AN My memory has since been jogged, but the point, I think, stands?) The mechanisms and metaphorical, exploratory possibilities of fantasy are so well suited to exploring feminist questions, and yet I can’t even think of another great post-Shirley Jackson writer in this vein in literature more broadly. Though I would love to be wrong, and feel free to name names in the comments.

Mr Fox sometimes says familiar things well. It’s a book about laudable subjects. But both it and fantastic/literary feminism could and should go so much further. There are rich, affecting, vital matters to explore here, yet hardly anyone is exploring them, and personally I think no one’s doing it as well as it needs to be done. Mr Fox is a promise unfulfilled, and that’s truly a shame.

Special thanks to writer Jenna Sauers, of the Model Alliance, for discussing the economics of modeling with me in 2012 in preparation for this review.

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