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‘Mr. Fox,’ by Helen Oyeyemi: A writer spars with his muse

By Kerry Fried,

However brilliant it may be, a first novel nowadays seems incomplete without some irresistible information about its creator. Take Helen Oyeyemi’s 2005 debut, “The Icarus Girl.” Reviewers couldn’t help telling us that this gifted young writer finished the book before her 19th birthday, received a huge advance, was born in Nigeria and was a student at Cambridge University.

Happily, “The Icarus Girl,” an unnerving exploration of a half-English, half-Nigerian 8-year-old who might be possessed by a hostile spirit, proved even more captivating than her author bio. And, more happily, at 26, Oyeyemi now has three more novels to her credit, including her newest, “Mr. Fox,” which opens with a standoff between the title character — a celebrated mid-century Manhattan writer — and his muse, Mary Foxe.

Like Oyeyemi’s previous books, this story probes the status of outsiders and shadow selves. But it is very much a departure, a postmodern puzzler that, despite its screwball moments, is inspired by the pre-modern: the bloody and bizarre English folk tale “Mister Fox,” Charles Perrault’s “Bluebeard” and the Grimm Brothers’ “Fitcher’s Bird” and “The Robber Bridegroom.” In all four, a brave and fair young woman outwits a murderous, controlling older man, often with verbal moxie.

While folkmeisters and Freudians have had a field day with these tales of seduction and abduction — with their giant kettles for cannibals, blood-spattered keys, rooms full of dismembered beauties — Oyeyemi has something else in mind: an examination of the novelist’s rights and responsibil­ities. Mr. Fox, you see, tells Mary that it’s absurd for her to be so appalled by the violence against women in his stories because fiction is “just a lot of games.” A crucial and increasingly mutinous figment of Fox’s imagination, Mary seems all flesh and blood as she challenges him to use his strengths more constructively.

What follows includes a clutch of short stories in which the writer tries to kick his killing habit, as well as a few folk tales and various scenarios featuring versions of Fox and Foxe. In the thoroughly 21st-century “What Happens Next,” for instance, the two meet up on a flight from New York to London after her original seat mate dies (by no means the only death in this segment), and they end up “playing house” at his “austere puzzle” of a place in Cornwall.

Some of the stories are less satisfying than others, which sport a variety of unfulfilled allusions and their own austere puzzles. For instance, the name of the matron at a school where boys are taught to be “world-class husbands” recalls the great Crimean War nurse Mary Seacole; two couples at the Foxes’ dinner party go by the names Comyns and Nesbit, clear call-outs to the visionary British writers Barbara Comyns and E. Nesbit. But there seems to be little meaning or shimmer behind these promising references.

Yet the book has its piquant pleasures. In one of its most entertaining, least-freighted scenarios, Mr. Fox and his muse engage in an epistolary duel that morphs into a delicious vision of Mary’s life as an Upper East Side tutor. Her young charge, Mary observes, looks like the girl’s mother “miniaturised, brunette, and wiped entirely clean of conscience. I have the strong feeling that unless Katherine is closely watched she will one day do something terrible to another person, or perhaps even to a large group of people.”

Violence is never far away in this ambitious effort, but neither is love (romantic, sexual, parental), and Oyeyemi’s dazzling, dislocating novel ends with an elemental tale of transformation — for both male and female — that Jeanette Winterson might envy. But Oyeyemi can’t resist undercutting this vision with a one-sentence coda: more proof that this protean writer can swing effortlessly from the ineffable to the odd to the madcap. In “Mr. Fox,” however, what she does not do — and doesn’t seem to have any intention of doing — is make it all cohere.

Fried has written for the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times Book Review, among other publications.

MR. FOX By Helen Oyeyemi Riverhead. 325 pp. $25.95

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