Book review: Fox 8, by George Saunders

George Saunders
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Every author is allowed to write a little bagatelle, and if, as George Saunders has done, you have also won the Man Booker Prize – with Lincoln In The Bardo – such a frolic is more than excusable. Fox 8 is an animal fable and it will take most readers less than an hour to get through. It is illustrated by Chelsea Cardinal, whose line drawings in red and black are effectively sweet and simple; since this is a sweet and simple book. It has a lot of charm, and, as one would expect, a degree of melancholy and anger given Saunders’ previous work.

The titular Fox 8 has done something remarkable. He has learnt human language by sitting listening to parents reading to their children at night. He has always been thought of as a bit of dreamer, but when he deciphers a sign about the development of a new shopping mall, FoxViewCommons, it sets him on a more antagonistic path with his peers. There are aspects of eccentricity, inquisitiveness, innovation and ingenuousness about the rest of the fable.

There is also a pleasing degree of restrained sentimentality. At first, Fox 8 thinks “Yumans” will like to share the food they discard in the mall. Then there is a moment of brutality and a point of flight. By the end, we have a happier, sadder, wiser Fox and no easy endings.

The traditional version of the fox in such stories is as the trickster: he is there in Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio, as Br’er Fox in Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories, as Reynard in various medieval texts, as Russel in Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale, in plenty of the fables of Aesop and tales by Pu Songling, as a character in Bill Willingham’s Fables, Beatrix Potter’s The Tale Of Mr Tod and Roald Dahl’s The Fantastic Mr Fox. As far back as Archilochus there was a saying, “the fox has many tricks, but the hedgehog has one that is best of all”. There is a reason we use the verb “to outfox”, and why Blackadder refers to a plan “as cunning as a fox who’s just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford University”. The fox is wily in many cultures. In Saunders’ version he is, sadly, gullible and affectionate. He also comments, albeit briefly in a brief book, on such stereotypes.

The incipient opportunity – or is it a threat? – of the mall drives the narrative and journey. I was reminded of books from my childhood like Colin Dann’s The Animals Of Farthing Wood, Richard Adams’ Watership Down or even William Horwood’s Duncton Wood (all of which are substantially longer).

The difference would be that the prose here needs a small amount of parsing. As I said, Fox 8 refers to “Yumans”. His linguistic skills, being a fox, are slightly off-kilter. The book begins: “Deer Reeder: First may I say, sorry for any werds spel rong. Because I am a fox! But here is how I lerned to rite and spel as gud as you do!” Now, suspension of disbelief is a wonderful thing, but by the end of the book, when the whole story is revealed as being a letter written to a “Yuman”, I sat thinking – did it hold a pencil in its teeth? Where did the paper come from? If you put a glamour over your reader, you need at least not to break it.

Fox 8 likes exclamation marks and the word “woslike”, and is afraid of “danjer”. There are novels, such as Russell Hoban’s classic Riddley Walker or Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, that teach the reader how to read their idiosyncratic languages. This seemed to me more like the (wonderful, and never to be criticised) Molesworth books by Geoffrey Willans and illustrated by Ronald Searle. There is a similar brio and fun to be had with “Par King” and “Fud Cort”. There is also, as with Willans and Searle, a sense of injustice: Fox 8 is bemused by the behaviour of Yumans as much as Molesworth found St Custard’s school inexplicable. There is also a hint of Don Marquis’s Archy And Mehitabel (about a cat that might have been Cleopatra and a cockroach who can use a typewriter) in the wide-eyed and teary-eyed voice across the novella.

At the conclusion, Fox 8 tells us “if you Yumans wud take one bit of advise from a meer Fox? By now I know that you Yumans like your Storys to end hapy? If you want your Storys to end happy, try being niser: I awate your answer”.

A fine sentiment indeed, and, given that foxes neither write nor understand language, it seems a bit annoying to say that the difference between “hapy” and “happy” annoyed me. Does this fox have no syntactical grammar whatsoever?

This has charm, although it is undercut by a certain self-regarding virtuosity. Saunders has always been good at a kind of cuddly kindness with undertones of satire and sorrow. This does not break the mold, but it will indubitably take your mind off, say, the train journey between Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Fox 8, by George Saunders, Bloomsbury, £9.99