Saturday, October 15, 2011

Helen Oyeyemi, Mr. Fox

Mary Foxe came by the other day—the last person on earth I was expecting to see. I'd have tidied up if I'd known she was coming. I'd have combed my hair. I'd have shaved. At least I was wearing a suit; I strive for a sense of professionalism. I was sitting in my study, writing badly, just making words on the page, waiting for something good to come through, some sentence I could keep. It was taking longer that day than it usually did, but I didn't mind. The windows were open. I was sort of listening to something by Glazunov; there's a symphony of his you can't listen to with the windows closed, you just can't. Well, I guess you could, but you'd get agitated and run at the walls. Maybe that's just me.
And so opens British writer Helen Oyeyemi's fourth novel, Mr. Fox (Toronto ON: Penguin/Hamish Hamilton, 2011), moving the main thread of a triangle-of-sorts between the author Mr. St. John Fox, his wife Daphne, and Mr. Fox's character who comes to life, Mary Foxe. What does it mean when the muse actually appears? Wrapping the main thread with a collage of stories, some fairy-tale, some fantasy, all magical, the action collages and even accumulates into a sequence of stories furthering the main action, the dance between three characters who don't entirely know what is happening. It's impressive the way that the further Oyeyemi's diversions stray from the main thread of the novel, the closer they relate. In a wonderful display of insight and play, Oyeyemi's Mr. Fox concerns itself with the way couples sometimes come together, interplay and even, how they might fall apart, from the husbands and wives, random strangers, lovers and even to other species:
What can it mean for a fox to approach a girl? Foxes are solitary. A fox that seeks out human company is planning evil. Or it has something the matter with it. Rabies, or something worse. The fox watched the girl at play, and he didn't understand what she was doing—it certainly wasn't fox business. Still, it interested him, and he gazed and gazed at her as she sat surrounded by all that greedy, dangerous fire that she kept in jars. He gazed and gazed though it served no purpose to do so, gazed without feeling satisfied and with the sensation of a deep scratch in his side (this was an awareness of time and its disappointments, the certainty that the girl would put out the lamps before he had looked his fill). And it was through observing the girl at play that our fox learnt to recognize beauty elsewhere in the wood. Whenever he became caught up in useless looking, he knew. Moonlight on the water brought rapture. Think of a fox, dipping his paws in silver, muzzle dripping. He didn't want to drink the water, only to touch it while it looked like that. Another fox came by and laughed at him. But our fox didn't care.
As Oyeyemi writes, the fox is solitary, as are each of the characters in this fantastic novel, yet each are still drawn to something other, something unknown, whether a kind of companionship, or the search for that unknown missing piece. Mary Foxe, it would seem, was compelled with such force that she came into being, stepping out of a fiction composed at first by St. John Fox, and then by herself, before all that happened next. It's intriguing, since what the book copy calls St. John Fox's “muse” doesn't necessarily propel the author to produce his books, but instead, exists as an anchor for him during difficult periods. Might “muse” be the wrong word? Still, Oyeyemi's novel concerns itself with various questions, including What is the nature of love and companionship? What is the nature of becoming, the self, in the world? How does one strike the balance between solitary and being part of something other?
I realize I'm reading very finely between the lines here, but maybe these two had fallen in love, and wanted to spare each other the anxiety of speaking with subtext, each wondering what the other wanted. A boy of weak character and his strong-minded friend: Neither would have been likely to declare themselves first. It's not impossible, is it, that what I'm saying could be true? It's the abruptness more than anything. In the first place they seem to have chosen each other to confide in, out of all the boys in the Academy, when actually it would have been safer to do as most of us do and confide only in our diaries. For many months these two found something to say to each other every day. Then they married, and nothing. There are feelings of some kind in this matter, even if I don't know what they are. The lake deeper than either of them had supposed, Charles kicking for shore with Charlie in his arms, the seconds without light or breath before both heads rose up and claimed them...

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