Mr Fox, by Helen Oyeyemi

book-4-ttt

(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.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender

Lon Cake

(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.)

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a coming of age narrative with fantastic elements. The central character, a young girl called Rose, gains the ability to taste the origins of the food she eats, and, in particular, the emotional state of the cook. To a degree, this functions as a metaphor for her perhaps over-developed ‘mundane’ sense of empathy, and provides us with a window into the emotional lives of her troubled mother, staid father, and enigmatic brother Joseph, all of whom have secrets of their own.

The writing isn’t experimental. It doesn’t come with bells and whistles. It’s not a particularly excellent example of relatively straightforward prose, studded with transcendently true and affecting moments. There’s a tendency to commend any book that’s not poorly written for its good prose, but that collapses the substantial middle ground occupied by books with pleasantly decent writing, such as Lemon Cake. The only real issue I have with the novel on this score is that Bender’s choice to omit quotation marks in a dialogue-heavy book doesn’t give the writing a satisfying immediacy, or stretch the dialogue into the prose in an enriching way. It just grates a bit. Typographical conventions should only be abandoned to achieve particular, generative effects. 

The novel is competent. It uses workmanlike prose to briskly evoke quite good characters, a strong setting and atmosphere, and a network of underlying tensions. It constructs promising conflicts between its characters premised on their fundamentally different natures. But the novel is also frustrating and unsatisfying. Despite its fertile set-up, remarkably little happens in Lemon Cake’s three-hundred pages. The slow pace might be used to unfold characters and relationships of great depth and interest, but the novel’s world is strangely static, and its characters undergo few dynamic changes. Reading it feels like being stuck renting a room from the Prufrock family. In a story so premised around emotion, the book feels sucked clean of it. Maybe life is like this for many people: small existences with sad families, few friends, inadequate and listless responses to problems, little exterior direction or interest, no particularly compelling inner life. Points for a certain flat middle class realism. But is anything in the novel stageworthy? In a story where no one cares passionately about anything, does anything matter?

The setting is both ungrounded and unhelpfully precise. A specific sense of place–restaurants and streets in LA, university options in California–juxtaposes strangely with the timelessness of the novel. It’s difficult to tell when the book’s set. It could be almost any time in the last several decades. A telephone booth is described as outdated, but no one has a cell phone. Joseph is a remote science genius who disdains touch and has trouble relating to people, and despite a surfeit of discussion about why he is the way he is, no one mentions the possibility that he might fall within the autism spectrum. It feels as though Rose’s entire child- and young adulthood takes place, both emotionally for the characters and in terms of the broader setting, in the same vague year, rather than over the course of more than a decade. This arrested quality is especially strange as bildungsromans (stories of a protagonist’s journey into adulthood) often, by their nature, deeply engage with concepts of change and time.

In the same vein, Rose’s coping strategies a month after her problem arises/her fantastic ability presents itself are very similar to her coping strategies over a decade later. A serious food aversion amounting to a disability might prompt one to explore a raw food diet, especially in LA, home of wacky dietary possibility, just to cut down on the amount of information overload one’s subjected to. Yet Rose miserably masticates her mom’s cooking and awaits the occasional salvation of a Dorito, for years.

No one in the book responds to the story’s fantastic elements with anything other than a sort of dreamy incompetence. Effectuality is said to be Rose’s father’s defining characteristic, yet he bumbles along with the rest of them. No one follows up on things. If your parent has a problem, and you feel you also have the same problem, then surely you could extrapolate that this apparently familial issue might well affect your own children. Yet the characters, despite caring about each other, never discuss this, save for one short conversation near the book’s end that doesn’t greatly affect the narrative. The scientifically-minded characters never seek to explore the cause of Rose’s abnormal experience, nor does Rose herself. Obviously these sorts of empirical processes aren’t really at home in a magic realist text, and they might be superfluous to, or lessen the metaphorical power of, the character’s strange abilities. But again, the fantastic juxtaposition with mundane, real-world elements, homework and marital problems, makes the absence of realistic coping mechanisms strange, and makes characters who don’t chafe at their situations or adapt to them less believable.

The fantastic elements–intriguing in their potential–don’t really go anywhere or mean anything. We have a protagonist who can taste the feelings that have gone into making food, but the conceit isn’t pressed. The problem always remains About Rose. Given the unsavory agribusiness industry and the involvement of animals in the food Rose eats, Lemon Cake could easily be Fast Food Nation: the Novel, and/or a 300 page advertisement for PETA. I don’t know that it should be, but sidelining those issues entirely seems a glaring omission. 

Furthermore, if Rose’s problem and ability is one of empathy (for her family, if not for cows and poor people), we don’t learn anything fresh and interesting about empathy’s burdens via this atypical means of accessing them. If Joseph’s problem is about, somewhat similarly, feeling assaulted by the world, his issues are dealt with too coyly, and at too much distance, to really have the chance to function as a means for communicating with the reader. It’s significant that Joseph presents as possibly-autistic in a world that doesn’t appear to have autism, and Rose has debilitating food aversions in a world without eating disorders, celiacs, etc. What does it mean to be a novel about empathy with no strong sense of the social world beyond the Family Romance? Is there, embedded in that, a quite politicized curtailing of empathy, despite the character’s relationship with food production automatically tying her into large, stratified socioeconomic networks?

At one point Rose tells her father a fabricated story about one of her classmates. He responds by saying “I know you’re trying to tell me something, but I have no idea what it is. Okay? I don’t think like that. What are you trying to tell me?” (pg. 173) I feel similarly about the entire novel, except I don’t think it’s a problem of not being willing or able to think in the fluid, associative ways magical realism and urban fantasy demand. I’m game, but ultimately, Lemon Cake isn’t.