In the Time of Foxes
by Jo Lennan
Simon & Schuster
Published May 2020
The cock crew,Joyce, Ulysses, 2.102-107
The sky was blue;
The bells in heaven
Were striking eleven.
‘Tis time for this poor soul
To go to heaven.
The answer to this riddle, says Stephen Dedalus, is, ‘the fox burying his grandmother under a hollybush’.
The title story of In the Time of Foxes includes a fox in a London garden and a grandmother soon to be sent into a nursing home. But these stories are decidedly not Joycean. They are written in what might be called the deliberately unambitious style of contemporary realism. What is original in them is their structure: they work like fables, though they have a novel’s pacing. They are set in London, Wollongong, Moscow, Sydney, Azabu, on the Atlantic coast of Spain, in Hong Kong, in Kyushu, in Oxford, in a small town near Mount Kosciuskco; even on Mars – and, like fables, they are set nowhere. The characters pay strikingly little attention to place; they speak to each other in much the same way in Wollongong and on Mars. There is rain to be seen, but it is soundless, it has no scent; it does not touch the skin. In these stories, the fable’s clarified settings – a well, a tree, a trap – find their equivalents in the settings of the global city: rooms – bars and restaurants and cafes – and people talking. Beneath the unemphatic surface and unelastic tempo of this prose, there lies a sense of globalised, annihilating vacancy.
One way or another, a fox passes through each story: seen through a window, mentioned in a book, part of a name, as someone’s epithet. Though this has been called a gimmick, to me it seems essential to how these stories work. Though the first story starts with the description of a foxes’ den at the back of a London garden, the emblematic fox of this book derives more from Aesop than from natural history. Aesop’s fox is a swindler, persuader, liar, storyteller, a creature that can talk its way out of a trap. To be these things, Aesop’s fox needs also to be an outsider – involved with others only enough to know how to manipulate their vanity and their desires. This emblem of Aesop’s fox offers a way to understand the ungrounded nature of this book’s characters. ‘A fox could be a shape-shifter…’
The stories are written mostly in free indirect style, narrating what happens from the point of view of one character in the third person while also freely tracking that character’s inward experience. It is possible for this style to accommodate a dramatic interplay between the two: to track how inward experience moves within but also always proliferates out from events in time. These stories reveal no strong interest in such dramatic interplay. They track the point of view of a character almost as a camera would – for the most part, held at the same distance from what it lights on. Their register is steady, unimpassioned. When the stories record what a character is thinking, often they indicate that the character experiences thought in complete sentences. ‘Going by her newfound loyalty, he guessed the divorce was back in motion. Well, good for her, he thought.’ That is to say, these characterisations take something from a fable’s fatalism. The fox did this because that is what foxes do. ‘Laura was an idealist, while he was a realist, he decided.’
The best of these stories follow characters strangely uninterested in their own motives, experiences and encounters. This allows the starkness of Lennan’s vision to show through, undisguised by the blander style of contemporary realism that her prose sometimes wears: as in, ‘Don’t think badly of me pls, she wrote in an email on her phone, biting her lower lip as she tapped the words’; or, ‘Talk to me, he wished to say, but Darya wouldn’t meet his eyes’; or, ‘At the firm where I worked, I wasn’t drawn to the other clerks. They had new suits, shiny hair and the glow of shared good fortune’. The vision at the heart of this book is barer and more interesting than the prose style that it adopts. Aesop was a slave who freed himself (it is said) through the gift of storytelling – and, like his fables, these stories are chiefly interested in power: not why – and not whatever they might feel and think about it – but how the animals get it, steal it, needlessly give it away.
Perhaps the best exemplar of this kind of writing in Australian literature is Christina Stead’s The Salzburg Tales (1934). It was Stead’s first book – also a linked collection of short stories. It starts:
A fresh wind blew in the woods, the pigeons massed in the Residenz Platz, tooting because the sky was bright, and the fountain dropped loudly on the weedgrown stones. The people went through an archway into the Domplatz where ‘Jedermann’ of the poet Hofmansthal was to be played in the open air before the cathedral. Actors in mediæval costumes ran about in the nearby streets and disappeared quickly in a little door at the back of the cathedral, or were seen leaning momentarily over the high cornices of the roofs of the Domplatz. In the courtyard of the fortress, high up in the air, tourists looking like flies or sparrows hung over the wall and peered at the Domplatz, trying to make out whether the play had begun…
With the hills outside Salzburg as a setting, with the morality tale Everyman as a framing device, with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Bocaccio’s The Decameron as a model, Stead amasses this immense and marvelous treasury of stories – told over seven days by her different ‘personages’.
Christina Stead remarked that her childhood with her father (type of ‘the man who loved children’) made her a naturalist: meaning, I think, that in her writing she studied and recorded human behaviour as naturalists study animal behaviour – noticing in detail, without the distraction of moral judgement, what they do in their natural settings. In the Stead papers at the National Library there are thin-paper pages of close-typed lists of ‘types’ – Stead’s precisely differentiated catalogue not of stereotypes but of archetypes. With its combination of particularity and wonder-filled abundance, Stead’s vision has more in common with the natural history of Pliny than the fables of Aesop. Still, it could be said that in In the Time of Foxes Lennan seeks to characterise some of the living ‘types’ of Aesop’s fox. ‘Foxes are very adaptable and extremely well suited to urban environments…’
In Stead’s work, the force that drives what happens feels natural – of nature – and her characters have inexhaustible human vitality. In In the Time of Foxes, the force that drives what happens has a machine-like anonymity. It is of the city, and violence is its backdrop. In the title story, Nina travels with a toddler from London to Wollongong. From the taxi, she sees her mother waiting for her in the garden – she is seeing her for the first time in six months – and what she notices is that her mother is still in her flowered nightie. It is the kind of world in which staying all morning in your nightie is evidence of decline. The stories place pressure on small details – on manners – while events happen off to the side: a friend jumps off a cliff and after the funeral they go to a gallery opening; a Russian mining oligarch drops photographic evidence of catastrophic environmental damage and the son’s tutor sees but doesn’t notice or think much of it. Lennan, with cool self-awareness, characterises the close scope of these technically far-flung stories:
Russia appealed as something bold, a wide impressive country… His first job, through the long and cloyingly hot summer, saw him living in an outlying gated community.
Henry James said, ‘the great question as to a poet or novelist is, how does [s]he feel about life?’ James was thinking of Turgenev: of how his novels are flooded with a kind of natural light, a living variation of intensities of experience. What is intriguing and distinctive about this writing is its deliberate constraint of means and reach. Not the dramatic interplay of characters and historical forces; not the drama of tracking somehow in language life as it softly explodes (Ashbery’s phrase) around you; not the sometimes self-preserving rapture of exact observation. Instead, here is the pleasure of how a story can turn upon an ethical question concealed within its action; the pleasure of a competence, like the click of a snib into its lock.
One of the best stories, ‘How Is Your Great Life’, starts: ‘At college, Dev Mishra had the room across from Ana’s. At that time a devout boy with a liking for overalls, he possessed…’ This is the kind of description that you could call falsely precise. Probably there are not quite as many reasons to like overalls as there are people who like overalls: quite a few of the people who like overalls probably like overalls because they like – or want to be like – someone they know who likes overalls. All the same, someone’s singular reason for liking overalls will always be more revealing – because more exact – than the fact of their liking overalls. So, what does that categorisation mean, and how does the category of people who like overalls intersect with the category of people who are devout; and how does that compare with those subsections of people who like overalls and tadpoles, for instance, or overalls and toothpicks? The falsely-precise description gives a sense not of precision but of randomness.
Lennan is a clever writer. She uses this kind of falsely-precise description at the beginning of the story for a reason, and the reason indicates what drives these stories. Her beginnings often set up one version of a character’s character, which her stories challenge as they unfold. The fox is a friend, the friend is false, the fox is a trickster, the trickster is useful. The endings of the stories come suddenly and leave some consequences to be predicted; but, in terms of character analysis, offer the formal satisfaction of a good courtroom drama.
In much the same way that these characters, with their full-sentence-thoughts, live slightly to one side of their own lives, the reader of these stories sees what happens through the eyes of these characters and, at the same time, sees these characters from a distance. Almost all of these stories have that satirical edge. In the title story, Nina organises for the foxes’ den in her back garden to be filled, and the foxes ‘evicted’, while she flies to Australia to see about her mother. When she gets back [spoiler alert] she sees one of the foxes in her garden still: ‘“You little beauty”, she said, standing still as she watched him go’.
The fox in that garden is not Aesop’s fox – its return to the story seems to mark how, as Elizabeth Bishop put it, ‘all the untidy activity continues, / awful but cheerful’ (‘The Bight’). At this point, at the story’s end, the satire works in several directions at once. Is Nina’s admiration for the fox a kind of mirror-tribute to her own ability to dispose efficiently of her mother and get on with things? Is it a suburban domestic example of the phenomenon that Renato Rosaldo named ‘imperialist nostalgia’ – in which colonisers develop nostalgic feeling for a past which they themselves have worked to destroy? Is it the longing that Aesop’s fox might feel for the life of a fox outside the fable?
The answer to this riddle, says Stephen Dedalus, is –
Elizabeth Bishop, The Complete Poems (1969).
James Joyce, Ulysses (1922).
Renato Rosaldo, ‘Imperialist Nostalgia’, Representations, No. 26, Special Issue: Memory and Counter-Memory (Spring, 1989), pp. 107-122.
Christina Stead, The Salzburg Tales (1934).