Tuesday, 5 April 2022

"Mrs Fox" by Sarah Hall - compromised genres

"The hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy" mixes genres though it's much more comedy than SF - Adams would do anything for a laugh. In other works the balance is more delicate. As an example I'll look at Sarah Hall's "Mrs Fox" which won the 2013 National Short Story Award and has been frequently reprinted. We're introduced to a working, childless couple returning home in the evening - meal, bed and sex. After a day or so of morning sickness the wife, in the course of half a page, turns into a fox. He deals with the practical consequences. Later he regularly goes to see the partnerless fox with cubs in the wood. Will he have to let her go? The end.

The genre? I guess it's Magic realism. But how does the author stop the magic undercutting the realism, and the magic being reduced to mere realism or hallucination?

The realism aspect is hard to sustain, though the author tries. The author keeps the magic to half a page. Surprisingly, the man doesn't freak out (but then, nor does Kafka's metamorphed man). At first he tries to keep her as a pet. He tells neighbours and her workplace that she's left him. Fair enough, but there's no mention of curious friends or relatives - a gaping plot loop-hole.

The fairy tale element is strengthened by a lack of worldly detail. We never discover the man’s name or what jobs they did. However the fox acts more like a pet than a human. And there's no obvious happy ending or moral.

So neither genre is sound. Yet readers go along with the story. Many are moved by it. The advantage of the magical element is that the situation can be applied to any relationship where one partner changes (has mental problems or out-grows the relationship, or dies) and the other partner has to cope, has to decide how his love will adapt - will he let her go?

The narrative voice tries to steer readers away from disbelief of both the realistic and mythic elements. Actually this task is performed by two blended voices - one from his point-of-view (in whose context the realism seems plausible), and a detached, more mythic/meta viewpoint (which makes the magic seem appropriate). For example, before any magic, there's this -

Her pubic hair is harsh when it dries; it crackles against his palm, contrasts strangely with what's inside. A mystery he wants to solve every night. There are positions they favour, that feel and make them appear unusual to each other. The trick is to remain slightly detached. The trick is to be able to bite, to speak in a voice not your own.

We're told little about either of them - myth is diluted by too much unsymbolic detail. We're told that she had "some kind of mass removed, through an opened abdomen", that she has a job and leaves the house untidy. She was once unfaithful. After her transformation their cleaner lets herself in. He pushes her out with such urgency that she thinks he's crazy. In a realistic story, the man might indeed query his sanity (thus normalising the story). In a more intellectual meta-story he might think he's a character trapped in a fable. The author tries to anticipate both of these possible reader expectations using the protagonist's viewpoint. He locks the fox in the house and researches in the library, wondering whether he's mad.

He returns home with medical texts and a slender yellow volume from the twenties. There is little correlation to myth. He is no thwarted love. Most upsetting is the repetition of one aspect: an act of will.

So if myths are to be believed, she's not afflicted - she has chosen to become "other" to him. The "slender yellow volume" is likely to be "Lady into Fox", David Garnett's 1922 novella, whose plot points Hall knew.

Where do our sympathies lie, and do they change in the course of the story? He worries about her, and following the transformation the fox sits at the man's feet. When trapped inside the house, the fox doesn't scratch desperately to escape. He lets the fox go, tries to forgot. When he finds the fox, "He waits to hear his name, just his name, that he could be made un-mad by it". The fox leads him to her den. He stays a respectful distance away. At the end of the story

He has given up looking for meaning ... One day, Sophia might [...] enter the kitchen and sit at the table. I dreamt of the forest again, she will say ...
To watch her run into the edgelands, breasting the ferns and scorching the fields, to see her disappear into the void - no - how could life mean anything without his unbelonging wife?

He's still hoping that reality will reign, though the use of the eye-catching word "unbelonging" suggests that he now knows that she doesn't belong in his world. His lack of panic (which at first seemed unrealistic - a device forced upon the author to make the myth aspect viable) and his undemonstrative (albeit sincere) love may be the very factors that made her leave him. The conflict of genres elegantly replicates the difference between the two people.

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