Tuesday 17 September 2019

Fox 8 by George Saunders: A fantastic fox leads Booker winner's tale of war, displacement and exile

Fiction: Fox 8, George Saunders, Bloomsbury, hardback, 64 pages, €12.90

Fox 8
Fox 8

Joanne Hayden

Even before his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, won the Booker Prize in 2017, George Saunders was a literary celebrity. His short stories - emotionally resonant as well as brilliantly inventive - are highly acclaimed, and in 2013 he appeared on Time magazine's list of the 100 most influential people in the world. The publication of any new book by Saunders is therefore an event - though Fox 8, which first came out as an ebook in 2013, is not, strictly speaking, new.

It was a canny marketing decision to release this illustrated edition of Fox 8 as a hardback and an ebook in the run-up to Christmas, and to describe it as a fable rather than a children's story, which it could also be - I'll be reading it with my six-year-old.

On the surface, it's an allegory about a young fox coming of age amid the greed, stupidity and senseless violence of "Yumans," who destroy his habitat and kill his friend, forcing him to flee. But because it operates on more than one level, it will have crossover appeal, and adults, particularly fans of Saunders' short fiction, will appreciate the voice, wit and balance of darkness and light.

The social commentary might seem blatant but power is a dominant theme in fables and like George Orwell's Animal Farm, Fox 8 makes no apologies for being a morality tale. And as well as being a warning about unchecked consumerism and development, it's also subtle, satiric and, as is so often the case with Saunders, beautifully compassionate. His Booker-winning Lincoln in the Bardo is a mesmerising act of ventriloquism set in a liminal world inhabited by spirits including Abraham Lincoln's newly dead son - but formally brilliant and wildly original as it is, it celebrates love as much as it delves into darkness.

While Fox 8 is much simpler and shorter - a long short story or short novella - a similar duality is at play here, and Chelsea Cardinal's sketch-like, childlike drawings capture it perfectly, reflecting the tone of the book. Her foxes are red and almost everything else is black. The colour coding is a deft way of conveying that in Saunders' text the foxes represent love, suffering, passion and adventure; in a monochromatic, myopic world, they have guts and heart.

The story is narrated by Fox 8, who has learned to speak 'Yuman' by sitting outside a window at night and listening to a mother reading to her children. "Deer Reeder," he begins, "First may I say, sorry for any werds I spel rong." He knows the Yuman alphabet from squinting his eyes through the window at "their buks".

When the Yumans dig up primary forest in order to build a mall, several foxes die. Against the wishes of his leader, Fox 8, along with his friend Fox 7, goes to investigate the mall.

They are spellbound by the "Fake Rox" and small river that "tho flowing, did not smell rite". Saunders has particular fun describing the carousal: "I was left to wonder: Why wud Old Yumans enjoy putting Yung Yumans on Fake Horses? It was a total mistery. And remanes so."

In the foxes' absence, their den is obliterated and the Yumans responsible go on to obliterate Fox 7. The violence - all the more gruesome because it's juxtaposed with the garishness and surrealism of the mall - marks the end of Fox 8's innocence and, not coincidentally, his overuse of exclamation marks.

In the hands of a lesser writer, the phonetically spelled words throughout the book might seem cutsie or annoying, but Saunders includes just the right amount - not enough to disrupt the reading experience but enough to ensure they are intrinsic to the narrative voice. Immediately, the words become part of Fox 8's curiosity and humour, part of how he sees the world. He sounds like a child who is learning how to read, which is partly why kids in the middle of this process will appreciate the book.

The device is typical of Saunders' linguistic verve. His short stories and novel are full of neologisms and slang that plug the reader straight into his characters' heads. They're also full of relatable voices that both normalise and emphasise the strangeness of his narratives. In the story 'The Semplica-Girl Diaries' from his collection Tenth of December, a man with financial difficulties worries about not being able to buy his daughter Semplica Girls: young women from poorer countries with microlines through their brains who are strung up in gardens as decorations.

If a flip side of Fox 8's misspellings is that they could induce a mild smugness in readers then this is counterbalanced by the fact that the readers (Yumans) are the bad guys here, and from Aesop to Animal Farm, fables rely on anthropomorphism. Animals are powerful allegorical symbols; Fox 8 isn't really a fox, he's a refugee child who wants to enjoy life but, because of what he has seen, is given to despair. His story therefore becomes one of war, displacement and exile, or forced immigration.

Saunders plays on the fact that foxes are staples of children's fiction; Fox 8 objects to the sly fox stereotype as "fawlse and even meen".

Slightly disappointingly, the fiction he has absorbed informs relatively little of his narrative, though it's not a spoiler to give away some of the closing lines from the book that, though sad and stark, is also strangely hopeful: "If you want your Storys to end happy, try being niser."

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