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A Flash Of Light, The Crackle Of Electricity, The Smell Of Metal Shavings, And Taste Of Magic In The Air Sweet And Powerful And Sharp As A Razor. DaVinci Had His Machines And Merlin His Spells, But The Techno Wizards Have Both In Perfect Unison, A Mystery Even Mecha Dragons Cannot Understand. We Know The Magics Of Ink And Of Oil, And If You Seek Us, You Will Find Us In Our Workshops, Crafting A Masterpiece.
*Sadly, Andrea was unable to join the rest of us this time due to a family emergency.
Book 3: Mr. Fox
Mr. Fox is the fourth published novel from award winning author Helen Oyeyemi, listed as one of Granta‘s Best Young British Novelists in 2013. Published in 2011, Mr. Fox is the story of slasher novelist Mr. Fox, who has a penchant for killing off the women in his novels in gruesome ways. His witty, sly muse Mary Foxe comes to life and challenges Mr. Fox to become the subject of his own and her stories in a complex game of fairy-tale hide and seek. In a series of interconnected vignettes, Mary, Mr. Fox, and Mr. Fox’s wife Daphne get swept up in a larger narrative about relationships, jealousy, romance, and the ways people hurt each other in intimate ways. In the end, Mr. Fox is faced with the choice between restoring the strained relationship with his wife or succumbing to the fantastical picture of romance that Mary Foxe offers.
What did you think of the book’s setting?
Jeremiah: There’s no real setting per se. It’s all in Mr. Fox’s mind/study for most of it. That’s kind of what I liked about it. It always took me a few sentences to figure out if what I was reading was really happening or if it was in his or Mary’s head.
Michał: I was never sure what is real and what isn’t.
Gretchen: There was a vivid element of the fantastical about it, especially the first third of the book. It was never quite clear whose perspective was dominant or in control of the story. I liked the puzzle of it all.
Mehek: That was the part that really vexed me, the puzzling nature of the timeline/setting. I consistently felt like I had to go back, re-read, and never quite knew what was happening.
Michał: I feel like I still don’t know what really did happen.
Gretchen: Yeah. The setting shift from 1930’s to modern halfway through was a bit jarring. One second you’re reading about typewriters and then a new story starts with Mary on an airplane. I’m still not quite sure how that vignette fits in with the rest in terms of setting in time.
Jeremiah: For me, the overall narrative was Mary showing Mr. Fox the women didn’t have to die or fight each other for there to be drama. That there was another way to tell a story without killing every woman.
Michał: So was it a story told by Mary?
Jeremiah: That was my take.
Mehek: Mine as well, which felt kind of odd. I feel like we lost Mr. Fox along the way.
Jeremiah: Well that’s thing though. I felt like it was meant to have us try and suss out how much of Fox and how much of Mary was in each story. Some had more of one than the other.
Michał: Now that I think about it, the various stories did feature common elements and roles they fell into. Like the young soldier in the story of a Middle-Eastern woman had a Mr. Fox feel to him.
Gretchen: True. Oyeyemi did a good job tying the various small stories together with one or two subtle similarities. Like the use of foxgloves or the color blue. After a while, you could start to see each of the ‘real life’ characters in the various stories.
Did the characters resonate with you? What did you think of them in general?
Michał: It’s kind of arguable how many characters there actually are, considering how the cast of the various story branches seemed to be variations of Mr. Fox, Mary and Daphne.
Jeremiah: I really loved Daphne, St. John’s actual wife. A man probably wouldn’t have fleshed her out as well, but Oyeyemi does an amazing job giving her full dimensions for a character that really doesn’t come into fruition until the last act.
Mehek: I loved the bits with Mary, especially closer to the beginning of the book. She felt the most fleshed out through the different ways the novel went.
Gretchen: I agree. But, I’ll be honest, I didn’t connect strongly with any of the characters. I enjoyed Mary, especially at the beginning during the power struggle over telling the story. But Daphne reminded me too much of my mother, and not in a positive way. I had a strong negative reaction to St. John in the opening scene, and he never quite improved for me.
Jeremiah: St. John has always been, for me, Oyeyemi’s version of the typical male author who thinks he’s artistic and doesn’t realize his own misogyny.
Gretchen: Totally! Maybe he just took too long to change? I have to admit, I couldn’t finish this book due to the way it handled the depiction of domestic abuse, so I may have missed his growth arc.
Michał: I’m not sure if he does improve…
Jeremiah: I don’t think he does. Maybe a little, but not much.
Gretchen: So if he doesn’t improve, what do you think Oyeyemi’s goal is with him as a character?
Jeremiah: I’ve read this book twice and I’ve struggled with that. I think it’s her way of commenting on the nature of change. That a person has to want to change and/or change doesn’t always appear dramatically. It’s the small things.
Michał: Maybe the point is Daphne’s change, not his.
Gretchen: Oooo, that’s interesting. What would you say Daphne’s change is?
Jeremiah: She demands more from St. John and also takes less abuse from him. She realizes she’s worth more than the way he’s treated her. I’m with Michał; I’ve always viewed the book as a sly story about Daphne and Mary rather than about St. John himself.
Gretchen: That’s interesting. I like that idea….especially as Mary seems to be the one who pulls Daphne into the story. That’s a clever little twist.
What didn’t work with the novel?
Mehek: I think ultimately, what didn’t work for me was the non-linear story telling. I comprehend books fairly well, but this just lost me far more often than it pulled me in. I wanted to get into it, to follow what was happening. But I read for the sake of being submerged, and I couldn’t find an “in.” In previous stories we’ve read, there was a pull into the story, a hook. And maybe I didn’t catch it with this book.
Michał: I agree with Mehek; this book sort of outsmarts itself and the reader. It plays with time, place and continuity so much that you lose its thread.
Mehek: I was poking around Goodreads trying to get a little insight, and came across Roxane Gay’s review of it. And she didn’t get it, either. That makes me feel better about not getting it, that if Roxane Gay didn’t understand the story, it might be a little over everyone’s head.
Jeremiah: I didn’t have an issue with the structure. My issue was, like Gretchen, the way abuse was portrayed; it was startling and visceral. And there was no real, sort of…anything in response to that. But again I think that’s because most abusers don’t realize they’re abusers? I don’t know. It was the one thing that has always irked me.
Gretchen: I could see what she was going for with the lack of response, but as someone who lived with a mother who had an explosive, sometimes violent temper like Daphne, the blasé way the narrative treats both that and St. John’s nonchalant physical threats disturbed me. Oyeyemi’s attempts at neutrality or objectivity (if that was her intent) came off as flippant to me.
The mutual domestic abuse also undercut what I thought was one of Oyeyemi’s main themes, that of St. John learning how not to kill off his female characters. I don’t think it’s intentional, but at times, Daphne’s temperament and behavior almost feel like a justification for St. John’s violent storytelling. And I don’t like that implication.
Jeremiah: I always viewed St. Johns and Daphne’s relationship as toxic. The sort of relationship that is often celebrated in ‘great art’.
Michał: St. John was scarily good at gaslighting Daphne.
Gretchen: I can see what you mean, Jeremiah, sort of. I skimmed the end of the book, and it seemed like they renew their relationship at the end, which doesn’t sit right. Part of my reaction may be that several reviews describe this as a book about love, which, reading the toxicity in their relationship, turned my stomach. The dust jacket calls it a “love story like no other”. Calling this a ‘love story’ and given them a happy ending feels like a normalization of abuse as a legitimate expression of love, especially given my history.
Michał: I don’t have as personal a reaction to it, but I definitely wouldn’t describe it as “a book about love”, either. It’s more… about power? And how people can inflict it on others. If I had to nail it down to one thing.
Jeremiah: I think a lot of it has to do with what people tend to think ‘love’ is and how art portrays ‘great love’. For example, people love “The Notebook”, and I’m just like “That’s not healthy.” Then again, I love this book so I don’t know what that says about me.
Gretchen: I like the idea of it, especially Mary taking Mr. Fox into his own stories to live out the implication of violence against women. It felt to me like a young writer who had two different themes that didn’t quite coalesce well in the final product.
What Did Work in the Novel?
Gretchen: That being said, Oyeyemi has an excellent command of language and metaphor. She’s an evocative storyteller, and I love her word pictures.
Mehek: The writing was really stunning. I feel like I want to read other books by her because of the language and the way she wrote. This may just not have been the plot/story for me.
Michał: Helen Oyeyemi does have a powerful way with words. The story jumped from one “setting” to another, but each of them was defined and colored very quickly and distinctively.
Jeremiah: Her word magic is strong. Her other books are also amazing. Although stay away from “Boy, Snow Bird”. But, she has an unique ability to get the feeling of the setting through in just a few words. And the atmosphere and mood is so complete. The story on the plane is this odd psychological thriller/ghost story while another one is this bizarre fantastical love story rooted in Yoruba lore and set in Paris.
Gretchen: “The Training at Madame de Silentio’s” was such a good story. The tone and subversion of the traditional female “school to become a good wife” narrative gripped me. I would read an entire book based on that vignette alone.
Michał: I kept expecting the Reynardine character to become relevant, or even central, but it never happened. In the end, it was just another story, probably Mary’s.
Jeremiah: I really loved how the inner process of writing in some ways is laid bare. Most stories start out as these little nuggets. Most writers will lay claim to arguing with non existent characters about how they are behaving. But here she flips it. A non-existent character starts chastising the creator for how he’s behaving. While at the same time the different stories had similar themes. A lot of authors tend to have themes or obsessions that pop up in their books. Sometimes it means something and sometimes it’s just because they love the color red.
Michał: I think that might be what this book is really about. It’s a story about stories. With several tiny narrative seeds that might have become stories.
Gretchen: I do typically enjoy a good meta-narrative where writers talk about writing. The Yoruba story especially touched on the writing process and one’s allegiance to past and history in telling stories. It approaches storytelling in a much less Western, individualistic, “singular artistic vision” kind of way, and I find that compelling.
Michał: I’m glad I read this book, even though I spend most of my time reading in a state of acute confusion. I felt like it showed me some places and ideas I wouldn’t have got to know otherwise, and that’s something I appreciate.
Jeremiah: As I’ve said before, this is my second time reading this book. It’s stayed with me ever since I first read it. Oyeyemi’s way with the language is up there with Gaiman and Diemer in terms of how it just seems to flow effortlessly. Plus, every time I read the book I’m reminded just how cruel men can be in everyday situations because we’ve normalized it so much.
Gretchen: Oyeyemi is a creative, evocative writer with a gift for language, no doubt about that. For me, however, her youth really showed in the inelegant way she handled heavy themes such as abuse and toxic relationships. So much so that I had to put the book down as it was hitting too close to some very personal, very difficult experiences in my life. I also think that she may have outsmarted herself and tried to tackle some subjects she wasn’t entirely prepared to fully tease out in an effective way. While I can’t recommend this specific book of hers to everyone, she’s a clever and gifted writer. I look forward to seeing more from her in the future.
Mehek: I’m glad to have been introduced to this writer through this book. I echo Gretchen though, that this really isn’t for everyone. I think that with regards to how the book is marketed, there should be some indication of the abuse/toxicity within the book, but beyond that, I look forward to reading other books by Oyeyemi.
Tune in next month for our review of Sara Diemer’s The Dark Wife, a sapphic retelling of the Hades and Persephony story from Greek mythology!