When I think of Helen Oyeyemi, imaginative, unconventional and confusing are the first things to come to mind.
My introduction to Ms. Oyeyemi was through her first book Icarus Girl. I do not remember much about the book except that it was quite imaginative and deeply confusing to me. I remember there was a girl who travelled back home to Nigeria, and maybe her name was TITI (I just checked, it’s Jess) and there was a character called Tilly Tilly who I assume was a ghost/figment of her imagination but never really understood.
So when I came across another book from her-Mr. Fox- I debated for a while whether to buy it or not. I expected it to be just as confusing as Icarus Girl. I was wrong about that; it was much more disjointed and unusual.
I cannot adequately review the plot or summarise it because as expected, there is a lot going on; too much infact. There is a Mr. John Fox and a Miss Mary Foxe (no relation) and a bunch of other characters thrown into the mix and swirled around into different stories and I just kept wondering “okay how is this person related to the others? What is the point of this story?”
Mr. John Fox is a writer, and we learn that he is in the habit of killing off the female characters in his book, a fact that his muse Mary Foxe has an issue with. Mary Foxe is his muse and they may be having an (mental?) affair but Mary Foxe is very much simply part of by Mr. John Fox’s imagination. We understand that she is imaginary but like other imaginary characters in Helen Oyeyemi’s repertoire, she seems quite real- she is a live-in tutor for this girl who she teaches literature and other things. She has parents-her father killed her mother-, she writes things and she eventually befriends Daphne-Mr John Fox’s wife. Is she imaginary or not?!!! is something I kept asking myself. Perhaps all of this is simply in Mr. Fox’s imagination.
Mr. Fox is not a typical book with a standard plot which has actions building up to a climax and then a resolution. Usually in books, there is a thread that weaves all the characters and stories together in a satisfying way and propels the reader to the end. One may like the ending or even hate it. For Mr. Fox, I had no feelings about the ending; how could I hate or love it when I did not really follow the stories in the book or have any expectation or idea of how the book could end? The book could have ended on any page and still made as much sense as it did to me.
After finishing the book, I read a comment on Goodreads that suggested the book be treated like a collection of short stories. On doing this the book makes a little bit more sense because one does not have to wonder about the thread that weaves all these characters together but can instead just enjoy each story, which is what I ultimately did. The book is like a tv show with lots of adverts; there is the main story with the Foxes, and there are lots of short stories interspersed in the novel which do not always have anything to do with the main story. Disjointed is definitely an adjective that accurately defines the book, but viewing it in this way-as a main novel with lots of short stories- could make it less confusing.
The one thing on my mind when reading this book was admiration for just how imaginative Helen Oyeyemi is. Oh what it must be like to live inside her head. It seems to me that she just put down all of her daydreams and nightdreams and thoughts unto the pages of the book. I did not really mind the confusing because I had expected it before even picking up the book. I read the book with the understanding that I would not understand it. So I read it page to page, not awaiting an ending or conclusion; but just enjoying the writing and imagination.
There is a lot going on in this book, and I do not mean that lightly. There is story of a fox (wolf?) that falls in love with a woman and then he learns to communicate through book clippings. It is a lot. Some of the stories are so strange and imaginative that I was completely in awe. Upon further research- mainly sifting through reviews of the book- I realised the stories are infact existing fairytales. One of the short stories in the book is about a man who has a secret room that no one is allowed to enter and he kills off any wife who disobeys him and enters the room (I may have remembered this incorrectly). The initiated may immediately recognise this as the story of Bluebeard from The Grimm’s Brothers fairytales but I was completely unaware. I just assumed this was one of the stories Mr. John Fox wrote in which he killed off female characters. I googled Reynardine- an interesting character from one of the many adverts- and I discovered that it is actually a traditional English ballad about a werefox who attracts beautiful women to his castle. Mr. Fox and Mary Fox are also based on an English folktale titled Mister Fox. I like books that teach me new things and point me in the direction of other interesting things.
Another very confusing thing for me (in addition to all the other confusion) is the time period the book was written in. The book starts out in 1938 and some chapters later there is talk of computers and internet. Mary Foxe is a figment of John Fox’s imagination in the 1930s then she is on a plane seeming way more modern than 1930.
Throughout the book, I kept wondering if this style of writing was unique to Helen Oyeyemi or if it was a particular genre of writing. Thanks to Goodreads I am now aware of a genre of literature called Metafiction.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines Metafiction as:
Fiction in which the author self-consciously alludes to the artificiality or literariness of a work by parodying or departing from novelistic conventions and traditional narrative techniques.
Wikipedia goes into more detail:
Metafiction is a narrative technique or genre of fiction characterized by a fictional work (a novel, film, play, etc.) that self-consciously draws attention to its own status as a work of imagination, rather than reality. Metafiction poses questions about the relationship between fiction and reality, usually using irony and self-reflection. It can be compared to presentational theatre, which does not let the audience forget it is viewing a play; metafiction forces readers to be aware that they are reading a fictional work.
The book is definitely Metafiction.
Understanding what Metafiction is, and knowing that the book is in this genre, as well as treating the book like a collection of short stories; and knowing that the short stories are all retelling of fairytales definitely makes it a bit more sensible. If I had known this beforehand, I would not have spent time wondering who this character was or who exactly was telling this story or what any of it had to do with the Foxes?
Mr.Fox was my first introduction to Metafiction and I am not yet sure if I like the genre or not. It does seem to be a genre that will be interesting to explore. After reading Mr. Fox, I think I would enjoy and understand Icarus girl a lot more. I and very impressed by Helen Oyeyemi and I will definitely read another one of her books, and again I would expect beautiful writing, great imagination and no ending.