In the opening pages of “Mr. Fox,’’ the latest novel by Nigerian-born author Helen Oyeyemi, a novelist’s creation turns on him with reproach: “What you’re doing is building a horrible kind of logic,’’ she says. “People read what you write and they say, ‘Yes, he is talking about things that really happen,’ and they keep reading, and it makes sense to them. You’re explaining things that can’t be defended, and the explanations themselves are mad, just bizarre - but you offer them, with such confidence.’’ This sounds like a fair description of the steel-trap logic of speculative fiction in general, and of fairy tales in particular, yet it is easy to see how for the narrative subject herself, such logic can be a prison cell - even, as for Bluebeard’s wives, a death sentence.
“Mr. Fox,’’ like Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber’’ before it, draws inspiration from what Carter called the “latent content’’ of the Bluebeard tale about the wealthy aristocrat who entraps and kills off a series of wives. The character is woven through the novel in such guises as Grimm’s Fitcher, the werefox Reynardine, and the British Mister Fox. Though Oyeyemi doesn’t have Carter’s fierceness, nor what might be called her intellectualism, the two share an interest in using fairy tales to explore how things might be different, for women in particular. For one, Bluebeard allows Oyeyemi to pose questions of fidelity: Must being true to one love mean “killing’’ previous ones? What lasting responsibility does a writer have to his characters (and vice versa)?
Oyeyemi’s own Bluebeard is St. John Fox, a 1930s novelist with a predilection for murdering his female characters. He is less than charitable to his nonfictional women as well: Of his wife he claims, “I fixed her early. I told her in heartfelt tones that one of the reasons I love her is because she never complains. So now of course she doesn’t dare complain.’’ Tired of submitting to this bloodied form of literary control, Mr. Fox’s longtime muse, Mary, comes to life to challenge him to a duel of alternately narrated tales. In stories scattered through the main plot, the two trade voices and genders, shape-shift, and jump nimbly through genre and time as they court one another and engage in a struggle for power. Mary is Mr. Fox’s creation, and at first the two are joined. But as the novel continues, Mary pulls away, becoming more and more a flesh and blood woman, first rival then inspiration to Daphne, the real Mrs. Fox.
Throughout, Oyeyemi sets the question of love within the question of narrative, portraying it as a kind of jousting match for control of the story. While Mary accuses Mr. Fox of viewing “every interaction as a narrative’’ this is what interaction is: What Oyeyemi calls “the beautiful risk of the fairy tale’’ is also the beautiful risk of love, and the novel’s refrain, borrowed from the original tale of Mister Fox, is the lover’s: “Be bold, be bold, but not too bold.’’
This, Oyeyemi’s fourth novel, is also formally her riskiest. Oyeyemi has an eye for the gently perverse, the odd detail that turns the ordinary marvelously, frighteningly strange: “I wondered about ants. I wondered whether within each ant there is another and another and another until finally you reached a cold small chip of the universe, immovable and displeased.’’ Her stories begin in an orderly enough fashion within their framing narrative, but it rapidly becomes hard to tell whether it is Mary or Mr. Fox - or Oyeyemi herself - who is in control of a given tale as they spin farther and farther away from the 1930s England of their frame. (At least one, “My Daughter the Racist,’’ was written independently - it was short-listed for the BBC Nation Short Story award in 2010). Narrated in an almost childishly rhythmic, simple prose, the stories draw from a wide swath of literary registers - a boy tries to assemble a woman out of art; a vicious Harlequin killer sits chained beneath a lake; a girl in an occupied village rebels against foreign soldiers; a neophyte writer corresponds with an author she admires. They are so various in fact that some of the later stories seem hardly to fit inside the frame at all.
Yet stories, and fairy tales in particular, allow for metamorphosis, and it is through becoming writers and narrators that the women of this story liberate themselves from Mr. Fox’s deadly plotline, just as Oyeyemi herself seems to do. Operating within a system where women don feathers and become birds as easily as going downstairs to a party, it is only natural that Daphne Fox should transform from society wife to scribe. Oyeyemi, out of deep sympathy for the written subject - the female subject in particular - has established a logic in which she can be free. That this logic sometimes feels disorganized only shows that the duel between Mary and Mr. Fox - writer and subject, lover and beloved - has not yet really been won.