Mr Fox, by Helen Oyeyemi, Picador, RRP£12.99, 256 pages
Literary muses come in many guises. Seldom, however, are they imaginary friends. But St John Fox, a 1930s American novelist and the eponymous main character in Helen Oyeyemi’s new novel, is inspired by a woman who lives inside his head.
Mary Foxe, as he calls her, manifests as an apparition. All impressive curves and wide-eyed innocence, she is a male fantasy figure straight out of the period’s pulp fiction. They talk, flirt and discuss his work. Unfortunately his wife, Daphne, grows increasingly jealous – unaware that this shadowy woman is make-believe.
This bizarre love triangle forms the premise for the fourth novel from Nigerian-born Oyeyemi, who wrote her first book, The Icarus Girl, while studying for her A-levels. It too featured an imaginary companion, created by a child struggling with her English-Nigerian heritage. This time, Oyeyemi has abandoned the theme of cultural displacement to move in a perplexing direction.
The story starts with a disagreement in which Mary challenges St John to write less violent endings for his female characters, who have a habit of being decapitated. “It’s ridiculous to be so sensitive about the content of fiction ... It’s all just a lot of games,” he retorts. They soon enter into a literary duel, in the form of a series of short stories – some by St John and others by Mary, although neither has a definitive voice – about relationships between men and women. This strange interlude is apparently an attempt by the womanising writer to overcome his rampant misogyny through the art of storytelling.
It is often tricky, however, to link the stories – an eclectic, opaque bunch, referencing European fairytales and west African Yoruba folklore – back to the battle of the sexes between St John and his imaginary muse.
In between are passages devoted to the love triangle of St John, Mary and Daphne, which unravels when Mary gains flesh and becomes real – apparently in some kind of playful comment on the fakery of fiction. Such self-referential trickery feels painfully self-conscious and postmodern. Ultimately, Mr Fox reads like a short story collection forced into a tenuous, over-arching narrative.