George Saunders’ new short story “Fox 8” offers an unexpected twist on the author’s darkly comic sensibility. Narrated by a fox who has learned human language (the Fox 8 of the title), it’s a taut little tale of development and displacement in which the narrator and other members of his skulk are driven away from their habitat by the construction of a new shopping mall.
What sets “Fox 8” apart are two things — first, Saunders’ choice to write it in a highly idiosyncratic dialect full of phonetic misspellings (“First may I say,” he begins, “sorry for any werds I spel rong. Because I am a fox! So don’t rite or spel perfect. But here is how I learned to rite and spel as gud as I do!”). And second, the decision to publish it as an e-book original, the author’s first.
Initially, Saunders told New York magazine last week, the story was meant for his collection “Tenth of December,” published earlier this year. “[But] every time I got to this one,” he explained, “it was asking one stretch too many from the reader. So I took it out, and then my editor said to me, ‘Would you like to revisit that story as a stand-alone release?’ I didn’t even know you could do that.”
Saunders has a point: “Fox 8” is a bit of an outlier, even for him. Structured as a letter to the reader (or “Reeder”), it starts as an account of resourcefulness and curiosity — the fox learns language by listening through an open window to a human mother reading bedtime stories to her children — before becoming something considerably more pointed and bleak.
Foxes, the narrator insists, are forthright and straightforward, not the sly tricksters of our childhood fairy tales.
“What I herd was a Story,” he tells us, deconstructing one such narrative, “but a fawlse and even meen one. In that story was a Fox. But guess what the Fox was? Sly! Yes, true lee! He trikked a Chiken. He lerd this plump Chiken away from its henhowse, claiming there is some feed in a stump. We do not trik Chikens! We are very open and honest with Chikens! With Chikens, we have a Super Fare Deel, which is: they make the egs, we take the egs, they make more egs. And sometimes may even eat a live Chiken, shud that Chiken consent to be eaten by us, threw faling to run away upon are approache, after she has been looking for feed in a stump.”
There it is, Saunders’ deft use of irony, his ability to sketch a complex world through the words and actions of his characters, who often don’t see the contradictions they present. But there’s an honesty at work here also, which kicks in further once Fox 8 must interact directly with the human world.
Humans, he discovers, are duplicitous, nasty, violent. They are selfish and greedy, concerned with nothing but with themselves. This becomes the focus of the story, with Fox 8 wondering, “Why did the Curator do it so wrong, making the groop with the greatest skils the meenest?”
“Fox 8,” was initially intended as a children’s book, although it was after that fell apart, Saunders says, that “it became really interesting just as a real short story. It was almost like, ‘How can you make something that horrible happen to somebody who is so nice?’ And of course you go, ‘Yeah, it happens all the time!’”
That’s exactly right, in both the world of “Fox 8” and the world we inhabit, which, despite the conceit of the story, resemble each other in many ways. It’s also Saunders’ peculiar genius to be able to weave those landscapes together, to get us to see ourselves in this foxy tale. The point is that in life as in fiction, we create the universe we occupy, that what we see is what we get.
Or, as Fox 8 reminds us: “If you want your Storys to end happy, try being niser.”