Though I haven’t been enjoying Saunders’ recent work, I have enjoyed him so much in the past that I’m always hopeful when I get my hands on something “new” (really, this story was originally published in January 2010 in McSweeney’s 33 (the issue that was a Sunday-edition sized newspaper), though it has been revised for this publication). When I saw that Random House just published this piece as an e-short, I used up the last of my Christmas iTunes giftcard to download it.
In a way, despite being published by McSweeney’s, this story has a history of what could be considered failures. It was originally conceived as a children’s book (I love children’s books). When that stopped working (the book is purposefully rife with spelling and grammar errors), Saunders put it together as a short story, and it was supposed to be included in his latest short story collection Tenth of December. It didn’t get put in there, either because, Saunders told interviewer Boris Kachka, “somehow every time I got to this one, it was asking one stretch too many from the reader” (here). I’m glad it’s now available, in a nicely illustrated e-edition, because, while not my favorite Saunders, it reminded me why I once admired him so much.
Fox 8 is a daydreaming fox. Perhaps his imagination started to blossom one day when he was passing a window and heard a mother reading to her children. The soothing human voice caused him to stop and listen closely. After a time, he learned how to speak human and, through more careful study, how to read and write it, too (to an extent). This is explained in the first few paragraphs:
First may I say, sorry for any werds I spel rong. Because I am a fox! So don’t rite or spel perfect. But here is how I lerned to rite and spel as gud as I do.
He idealized his first relationship with humans, though there was no direct contact. It opened up his mind, confirmed goodness, and filled him with hope:
When done, she wud dowse the lite, causing dark. Then, due to feeling “luv,” wud bend down, putting snout and lips to the heds of her pups, which was called: “gudnite kiss.” Which I got a kik out of that! Because that is also how we show our luv for our pups, as Foxes! It made me feel gud, like Yumans cud feel luv and show luv. In other werds, hope full for the future of Erth!
So much does he love this human family, he even daydreams growing up with them and eventually going to college with the baby. It may sound hokey, but I was surprised at how quickly I sympathized with Fox 8. He feels deeply and is genuinely kind at heart.
It’s also easy to sympathize with him because he is a very limited narrator. He is innocent to human cruelty and his diligent attempts to communicate through human language highlight both his innocence and hope. Often (lately, anyway), I’ve found the verbal and grammatical ticks Saunders uses with his narrators to be affected, showy, and cloying. But in this case, even though — no, because — Fox 8 thinks “woslike” is human for “said,” I somehow felt more connected to him, more invested in his quest to do good, to follow his own admonishment: “try being niser.”
The pain in this story comes when Fox 8 becomes disillusioned with humanity and, consequently, with life in general. One day, some trucks came in and started knocking down trees: “Terns out, it cud not eat us. It cud not chase us. But what it cud do, was even werse.” They are constructing a mall. This kills the habitat and the foxes begin to starve. They don’t know what to do.
Now hold on a minute. I was wary at this point, too.
Would this story be a well written though unsophisticated polemic (which is how I feel about several of his other stories) about the environment? It’s not as simplistic; it’s not even actually about the environment. The mall does not causes Fox 8 to lose his hope. Rather, he witnesses one truly horrific scene of pointless, sudden, whimsical human cruelty. It empties him: “I had herd so many Storys at that window but never had I herd a Story in which anything [. . . trailing off to avoid spoilers]” He wanders and thinks, “Why did the Curator do it so rong, making the groop with the gratest skils the meenest?”
I felt this emptiness. Even though I was reading about an innocent fox, I related to the shock he feels. I understood his loss of innocence and his new skepticism. I felt sad that all that is good has been tainted:
I know life can be gud. Most lee it is gud. I have drank cleen cold water on a hot day, herd the soft bark of the one I luv, watched sno fall slow, making the wuds kwiet. But now all these happy sites and sounds seem like triks. Now it seems like the gud times are mere lee smoke that, upon blowing away, here is the reel life, which is: rok hats, kikking, stomping. Every minit with no kikking and stomping now seems like not a real minit.
One day, another fox reproaches Fox 8:
Yesterday she woslike: You have a sad dark view.
And I woslike: So wud you.
In a way, the first images of the story, with the fox sitting outside the window of those innocent children, come back, and he starts seeking “what mite somewhat retreev the old and hope full me.” Apparently, the version published in McSweeney’s was darker and ended on a bitter note. Here the ending is open, hopeful and not contrived even if it’s blatantly moralistic. It’s been a while, but here is a Saunders story I highly recommend.