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‘Mr. Fox’ is a morsel to be savored

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By Helen Oyeyemi

Riverhead, 336 Pages, $25.95

Updated: October 2, 2011 2:35AM

Startling, beautiful and stilted, Mr. Fox, by Helen Oyeyemi, constantly reminds that excellent writing may be found in a lot of places, but profoundly beautiful writing is rare and even more difficult to sustain.

Oyeyemi pulls off the profound beauty again and again within the boards of Mr. Fox, but sadly, that magnificence is not sustained to the end of the tale. Too often there are retreats from the central relationships that throw off the whole. Two chapters in particular seem like favorite short stories the author just could not save for an upcoming collection but rather had to crowbar them into this otherwise perfect book.

Mr. Fox, his figment, Mary Fox, and his true-to-life wife, Mrs. Fox, all intersect through space and time. Through well-blended prose, creation myths, awkward skirmishes and the purchasing of tasteful hats, readers attend these three characters as the terrific weirdness that is Mr. Fox, the novel, ensues.

St. John Fox is a writer famous for killing off women in his stories; Mary Fox is a creation he uses as a tool to scold and inform himself of his motivations and to act as moxie gatekeeper of his most closely held secrets. His wife, Daphne Fox, is the writer’s loving, light-hearted companion — until she wises up to the existence of Mary Fox, whom she at first believes to be her husband’s mistress. She finds out otherwise, and then both Fox women go out to lunch.

Each character is so superbly formed, and they are believable people whose habits of thought and language are so perfectly pitched and entertaining that they become instantly lovable, that is until we learn more about them. The combination of intensity and changeability in all three characters reflect many of the archetypal baddies from myth and batty old fairy-fables, the most prominent of which is Bluebeard, with his many bloodbaths, and the Furies, with their readiness to punish crime.

The Fox women seem to be different styles of the same woman: intense, honest and fiercely intelligent. Mr. Fox seems the classic man artist, so self-possessed and full of unsated passions. These three make the whole book thrilling, and the novel should be wholly theirs to inhabit, but it is not. There are a couple stories that seem completely detached from the astounding whole. The story set in Palestine, for instance, just doesn’t belong. Such interruptions do not spoil the book completely, but they do impede the progress of the profound admiration we’ve so enjoyed heaping on the author until we are subjected to these outtakes (lovely as they are as stand-alones).

Essentially Mr. Fox is a modern reworking of three or maybe 101 myths, fables and fairy-tales. In our image-saturated culture, such a reworking of time-honored race warnings evokes their bloodthirsty ideas, at once brutal and titillating, to jump off the page and demand priority within our mind’s eye — just in front of the headlines from News of the Weird. Luckily, Oyeyemi has not been so crass as to make light of her character’s plight. At times it’s almost impossible not to turn away in horror, yet she makes her fairy tale tolerable with her infectious sense of fun and adventure.

Mr. Fox, for the sake of its literary style and narrative verve should not be ignored. Everyone and their Aunt Maud should read such a triumph of word-putting togetherness, if for nothing else but for everyone to add three new voices to their own personal fairy-tale myth fable.

M.E. Collins is a local free-lance writer.

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