Going with the flow
“(T)o whom can someone of good conscience give such an object as a key?” asks a character named Rowan halfway through Helen Oyeyemi’s story collection, “What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours.” “Always up to something, stitching paths and gateways together even as it sits quite still; its powers of interference can only be guessed at.”
That’s interference, not inference; the keys that appear in every story never unlock anything as simple as meaning. Instead, they open doors into stranger and stranger rooms, infinitely expanding each story’s world, dislodging the patterns we are so quick to see and testing the capaciousness of our sense of who and what is worth attending to.
Oyeyemi, who wrote her first book in high school and published it as an undergraduate at Cambridge, has written five inventive, unsettling novels and two plays. This is her first collection of short fiction. Born in Nigeria and raised in London — she now lives in Prague — Oyeyemi has often drawn inspiration from fairy tales and folklore: “Boy, Snow, Bird” turned “Snow White” into a story of racial passing. A writer’s writer, she spent all of one semester in an M.F.A. program before bolting, perhaps wisely intuiting that her writing was better off with its weirdness fully intact and fully hers.
Thank goodness, because the nine stories in this collection feel idiosyncratic in a way that is hard to imagine surviving a workshop setting. Casual and accessible at the sentence level, they are not so much experimental as deeply comfortable with the pre-narrative and
proto-narrative impulses at the heart of storytelling. Oyeyemi’s tendency to nest stories together, her willingness to let anecdotes and digressions swell until they take over the story, hark back to older story structures in which the hierarchies of narrative are less important than their ongoingness — think “One Thousand and One Nights” or “The Decameron.” The anatomy of a typical Oyeyemi story is one of deliberate imbalance; she inevitably opens more parentheses than she closes.
The story “‘Sorry’ Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea” opens with a directive that’s already at odds with itself: “‘Be good to Boudicca and Boudicca will be good to you,’ Chedorlaomer said.” If the tough-guy chiasmus sounds like something out of a gangster film, the names invoked are those of a Celtic warrior queen and an Old Testament king. In fact, Chedorlaomer turns out to be an internationally famous singer who borrows his melodies from “voices without form,” Boudicca is his fish, and they live in a spooky Suffolk mansion called the House of Locks, whose peculiarities would take too long to explain. Ched is returning to his home country, which may or may not be Iran, to do two years of mandatory military service, and he’s giving the nameless male narrator, who works at a weight-loss clinic where clients are put to sleep and starved for days at a time, instructions for feeding the fish. All this is a prelude to the real story, which is about the narrator’s boyfriend’s daughter’s favorite pop star, Matyas Fust, being outed by a prostitute as a violent abuser in a viral Internet video. You see what I’m saying?
There’s nothing glib about all this quirk. At the heart of the story is the pop star’s pathetically inadequate public apology to his victim and the effect on a sensitive teenage girl who’s his biggest fan, a story that feels ripped from the headlines. The roundabout introduction and magical solution don’t trivialize the situation, however, but rather transform it into archetype, making myth itself feel more urgent.
Always in flux in these stories are sexuality and gender, race and nation. Characters swap loves and points of view, and float in and out of each other’s stories as if to emphasize that identity is narrative, and narrative is contingent.
If not all the stories are quite as successful, they are all interesting. Rarely is it such a pleasure to read an author so intent on pleasing only herself. Oyeyemi writes as if listening to her own “voices without form,” dipping into an endless well of ever-unfolding stories and only finishing them when she feels like it, by an accident of her own attention span. Happy accident.
‘What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours’ By Helen Oyeyemi, Riverhead, 327 pages, $27