Mr Fox is a magic realist tour-de-force that blurs the edges of reality and fantasy. We begin the novel with St John Fox, a prominent American novelist, recounting a meeting with his imaginary muse, Mary Foxe, during an extended period of writer’s block and after a six-year absence. She is angry at him for having killed off so many of his central female characters, denouncing him thus: ‘you kill women. You’re a serial killer’ to which John replies, ‘It’s ridiculous to be so sensitive about the content of fiction. It’s not real. I mean, come on. It’s all just a lot of games.’ This tug-of-war between what we take as serious and what we don’t is the central pivot of Oyeyemi’s fourth novel, in which she explores the range and breadth of what fiction is and what it should be capable of. She sets John a ‘challenge’ – of what kind he, and the reader, are unaware – and the novel spirals into numerous separate vignettes, featuring often the same but slightly altered characters, in different scenarios, like next-levelling on a video game that all hold the idea of myth and stories at their heart.
She is a master storyteller, gifted with an ability to produce the kind of myth-infused, quizzical metaphors that allow the reader to make sense of the higher meaning of her magic realism: one short section, ‘Hide/Seek’, features a girl with a heart so heavy, she is only freed from it with help ‘from the dead’; in the final section, a fox, yearning to become a person, rips out the word ‘fox’ in the dictionary to present his humanness. The language and imagery used to recount these fantastical happenings is sensuous; Oyeyemi writes of ‘tinned peaches in chill syrup’ and places where ‘damp sand beads and breathes’, illuminating further the heightened rhetoric of the novel.
At the centre of the novel itself is a loose reworking of the myth of Bluebeard, who killed off many of his wives, and with this awareness, and the range and accumulation of technique employed throughout the novel, it becomes clear that in these stories Oyeyemi is both writing a story and writing about stories themselves. The tale of Reynardine, a prisoner kept underwater and in chains by the Madame of a strict all-boys boarding school, exemplifies how Oyeyemi manages the narrative of a story within a story, whilst the unsettling love triangle between John Fox, his wife and Mary is gripping in its palpable human emotion. The act of writing about a writer has given the novel, as if more meaning here were necessary, an extra layer of impact. Within the novel, Oyeyemi is a fairy-story teller in her own right, yet she’s given this novel not to the prominent American novelist, but to his imagined muse, paradoxical in itself as there is no creation without creator. This is perhaps indicative of her own experience with writing – she shows us the power of the novelist, yes, but also, the power of the novel over its writer.