About The Book: The titular Mr. Fox in Helen Oyeyemi’s novel is a writer with a Bluebeard-like tendency to murder the women in his books until one of his characters, Mary Foxe, decides to make him change his ways. The writer and the fictional girl engage in a sort of story-telling duel that explores themes of misogyny and violence against women, while the writer’s wife, Daphne, struggles to understand what Mary’s appearance means for her marriage and what she wants to do about it.
My Thoughts: I just finished reading Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi. Truth be told, I just finished reading Mr. Fox for the second time. I actually finished my first pass at the book several days ago and I immediately launched into a re-read. I didn’t even put the book down. Just turned back to page 1 and dove in again. Although the book plays with the Bluebeard story, Mr. Fox is not a straight-up fairy tale that follows a linear and easily definable story-line. Instead it is more of a “Bluebeard kaleidoscope” (as Oyeyemi describes it) and the stories, themes and characters shift and blend together as the book progresses. After a while, it becomes difficult to tell who is telling which stories and what roles they have been cast in. As a result, the book was so fluid and amorphous that I didn’t really feel as if I had a grip on it the first time around. With a second reading under my belt, I feel a little more secure in the story but, to be honest, I will never be 100% sure of it. Readers of fairy tales can tell you that foxes are cunning shapeshifters and tricksters who never approach anything head on. And the foxes in this story, (Mr. Fox, Mary Foxe, and Daphne Fox), are no exception. Mr. Fox, as a book, is too circuitous to be an easy or easy-to-define read. You won’t come away with any easy answers but I think the questions themselves are important.
Leaving aside the issue of the more obvious themes of literal violence towards women, including domestic abuse and rape – which are certainly important – the thing that struck me about this novel is how it taps into our culture’s systemic and toxic hostility towards women and the many ways men, who like Mr. Fox, certainly don’t see themselves as villain, justify it. This is especially true online and you don’t have to look far for examples of men abusing, harassing, and outright threatening women on social media platforms, like Twitter. One of the first examples that comes to mind is #GamerGate where men targeted women who worked in or commented on the video game industry. One woman, Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency, was targeted by the gamergate trolls for producing YouTube videos that discussed how women are portrayed in video games and was subjected to death and rape threats, constant harassment, and has even had speaking engagements canceled due to threats of violence. Meanwhile other women targeted by the men of gamergate had their personal information (including their home address) published and had to leave their homes for their own safety when the online threats turned into credible, real-life danger. More recently, I watched a video in which men read so-called mean tweets about female sportscasters to the women they were directed to. The results were chilling. And even more frighteningly, we have presidential candidates taking to social media to harass and attack a woman journalist for daring to ask him about his history of sexist comments about women. And even when they are called-out for their behavior, these online trolls take a page from Mr. Fox’s playbook and shapeshift into another form or at least another Twitter account so they can continue to their bad behavior or, with a little PR, twist and shift the story into something more excusable.
When Mr. Fox protests Mary’s accusations that he is a serial killer of women, many of his arguments sound very familiar. He claims that Mary has no sense of humor and takes things too seriously and you get the sense that Mr. Fox doesn’t expect there to be any consequences or impact for what he writes because it’s not a “real” person that he is addressing – just some words on the screen but Mary has an unsettling habit of becoming all too real and, like Ania Sakeesian, challenging Mr. Fox’s assertions that what he writes is no big deal.
“What you’re doing is building a horrible kind of logic. 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. It was because she kept the chain on the door; it was because he needed to let off steam after a hard day’s scraping and bowing at work; it was because she was irritating and stupid; it was because she lied to him, made a fool of him; it was because she had to die, she just had to, it makes dramatic sense; it was because ‘nothing is more poetic than the death of a beautiful woman’; it was because of this, it was because of that. It’s obscene to make such things reasonable.”
I am not sure where to leave this review, especially since – as I mentioned before – Oyeyemi’s novel really doesn’t lend itself to a clear-cut ending or interpretation. I am tempted to rant a little about the way Mr. Fox treats his wife – even without the excuse of her being fictional – and the complete lack of consequences that behavior has. I could debate whether Mary’s attempts to rehabilitate Mr. Fox had an lasting impact on him. But I am not sure there would be any point to that. I think the real point of Mr. Fox is that we are talking about Mr. Fox and by extension the real-life Mr. Foxes we encounter in everyday life. Or at least, that’s my thoughts on the matter.