From Madame Zero
The opening story in Madame Zero, British writer Sarah Hall’s second collection of short fiction, is about a married woman who turns into a fox. This is not a metaphor: one afternoon, while on a walk in the woods, the wife inexplicably sprouts body hair, a snout, and a tail, and takes to running on all fours. She begins feeding on live birds and eventually gives birth to a quartet of pups. She becomes, in short, a literal vixen.
The story,“Mrs. Fox,” is told in a close third-person narration from the perspective of the woman’s husband. Over the course of the narrative, the unnamed man moves from the married complacency of “blissful, dreamless” sleep to incomprehension at the transformation that has overtaken his wife to melancholy and loneliness when, as a fox, she abandons him to live outdoors. As for the wife, Sophia, this is how the husband describes her prior to her metamorphosis: “She is in part unknowable, as all clever women are. The marrow is adaptable, which is not to say she is guileful, just that she will survive.”
“Mrs. Fox” bears a close affinity with “Evie,” the closing story in the collection, which also focuses on a husband trying to comprehend the startling transformation that has overtaken his wife. Unlike the earlier story, the change that the eponymous character undergoes here is not supernatural or allegorical, though it is, in a sense, animalistic: without much in the way of warning or preamble, Evie becomes sexually insatiable.
At first, Evie’s voraciousness manifests itself in a desire to gorge on chocolate and red wine, but this quickly escalates to physically and verbally explicit behaviour: “I would like a fuck,” she tells her startled husband, Alex. “I just want a fuck, Alex. That’s all. If you aren’t up for it, fine.” This exchange takes place the morning after Evie makes a pass at their mutual friend, Richard, during a dinner at the latter’s flat.
Assertive female sexuality remains uncomfortable for many men who have been socialized from a young age to adopt the dominant role in a relationship. Men are allowed to indulge in sexual appetites; women are not. Alex is no exception and his initial reaction to Evie’s aggressive advances is to retreat in a scandalized huff. Hall makes explicit the hypocrisy in this manoeuvre: Alex has harboured pornographic fantasies that his wife might come across as “more cattish” than she does, but when that fantasy manifests itself, he is unwilling or unable to entertain it. Here we are presented with a man who subscribes to all the clichés of masculine pride and authority, while in practice evincing a strain of timid prudishness. “All the times he had wondered, imagined getting his cock out, stroking himself in front of her and saying, come here and suck this, how she would have responded. He’d never done it.”
Hall uses the language of porn to exemplify Evie’s newfound brazenness, but also to force an identification between the reader and Alex, who reacts to his wife’s enticements first with fear, then with increasing excitement and willingness. Alex’s sexual history, we are given to understand, involves a succession of women chosen to fulfill a fantasy of deviance he keeps in his head, though his habit is to cut and run the moment any of these actual women manifests a sexual agency of her own. “Good crazy, rather than bad crazy, that’s what you want, Richard had said. A fantasy woman. But it’s bullshit, Alex. You keep getting them to fall for you, then cutting a swathe. It’s ridiculous.”
The suddenness of Evie’s naked desire and its transactional approach frightens Alex both in its lack of feminine subservience (in the car on the way home from Richard’s, he pictures her sitting “in a pose that looked supplicatory”) and in the potential for him to actually partake in the kind of abandon he has traditionally shied away from. “He should be kissing her, feeling her breasts, doing what she’d asked him to. But this exchange; there was too much and too little intimacy at once. He disliked her casualness, the request as banal as to go and buy milk. He was locked in. It was absurd.”
Of course, Alex does eventually give in to Evie, and Hall packs her story with sex – lots and lots of sex. There are blowjobs and cunnilingus and masturbation and hair pulling, all culminating in a threesome with Evie, Alex, and Richard. The language and tone Hall musters is spare and unadorned; in its straightforward directness, it is far more highly charged than the rococo fripperies of ersatz erotica such as Fifty Shades of Grey could ever hope to be. The eroticism is heightened all the more because Hall provides her reader with psychologically acute portraits of her characters – they seem achingly, lustily real on the page.
Where “Mrs. Fox” begins as a work of naturalism, then takes a side road into allegory, “Evie” remains firmly entrenched in a realistic presentation. The onset of her sexual adventurousness turns out to have a neurological explanation, but the story also implies that the lesion on Evie’s brain that causes her to act out does not fundamentally change who she is on any essential level – it merely allows the fullness of her personality and her desires to manifest. In the process, she also unlocks something in her husband and forges a deeper connection with him (in every sense). “The rules were gone,” Hall writes. “It was easy to say these things; easy to undo himself. They’d suddenly found each other, through irrepression, means he did not quite understand. Her age, hormones, a revival of some lost appetite, the arrival of a new one; it didn’t matter, he didn’t care.”