When Fox is a Thousand

Larissa Lai's debut novel reviewed
By Kuan Foo

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When Fox is a Thousand
Vancouver, Press Gang Publishers 1995
236 pages

"I come from an honest family of foxes," begins the title character of Larissa Lai's debut novel, When Fox is a Thousand, and right away one can sense the mischievous grin behind the voice, the wink, the nudge that promises a tall tale or two. And tall tales are what Lai delivers, offering up not one, not two but three alternating stories that become progressively more interwoven until they converge at the book's startling conclusion.

The first tale is narrated by the fox spirit of the title, an enchanted trickster who inhabits the bodies and minds of women and leaves a trail of chaos and delight in her wake as she sojourns across centuries and continents. Now nine hundred and ninety nine years of age, the Fox prepares for her thousandth birthday, when she will achieve immortality. The second tale recounts the history of the ninth century poetess, Yu Hsuan-Chi. Both nun and courtesan in her time, her free spirit, 'lascivious' sexuality and talent for verse scandalized China until she was sentenced to death for allegedly murdering her maidservant. The final tale, located in twentieth century Vancouver, follows the progress of Artemis Wong, a young Chinese Canadian woman struggling to find her identity among her friends and her community.

The first two stories set mostly in ancient China are beautifully told in lush semi-poetic style appropriate to the setting, and it is these two narratives that provide much of the initial appeal of the novel. It is, however, the third story, that of modern day Artemis Wong, that holds the key to unlocking the structure of the book.

Unlike the other two stories, both first person narratives, Artemis' tale is told from a third person omniscient viewpoint, thus ensuring that we never get inside her head. From the outside, Artemis is almost a complete cipher. Named for the Greek goddess of the hunt, she seems forever in pursuit of some single defining moment, while not knowing what she is really after. Instead, her life drifts through a series of unseemingly random encounters with friends, lovers and acquaintances who embrace a spectrum of experiences and whose names—Diana, Mercy, Eden, Saint—drawn from classical Western and Christian mythology stick out like sign posts against the prosaic twentieth century landscape. An adopted (i.e. rootless) child, Artemis' personality seems to transform itself depending on which of these people she is around, transformations which mirror those of Fox. But unlike the latter's deliberate machinations, Artemis' actions seem neither voluntary nor purposeful Instead, trapped at the convergence point of several worlds—Canadian and Chinese, heterosexual and homosexual, mainstream and marginalized—and uncertain of her role in any of them, Artemis resembles nothing more than a character in a child's choose-your-own-ad-venture book, uncertain of which plot line to follow.

And therein lies a clue as to why Lai has structured the book the way she has.

Like Artemis, the reader is presented with a series of stories and challenged to find the 'true' one. The three stories initially appear to exist in three separate and clearly demarcated territories that initially seem to have very little to do with each other: mythology, history and reality. However, before long elements of each start to bleed into the other. The 'mythical' fox moves to Vancouver; the 'historical' poetess encounters a house inhabited by fox spirits; and Artemis, while seemingly 'real', encounters a mysterious woman with magical abilities. The more the stories mesh, the clearer it becomes the Lai, like Fox, has woven some mischief of her own: 'mythology', 'history' and 'reality' crunch together and are revealed as merely framing devices through which the world is perceived. The three stories are, in fact, one. All of them are true, yet none is true. And it is this inquiry into the nature of what is deemed to be true which provides the foundation of the novel. As Fox wends her mischievous way through time and space, she uncovers the silent history of women and their desires. The poetess, too, tells a version of her life far different from historical record. And as Artemis struggles to find herself, we as readers are forced to confront our perceptions of what is known about the world and whose point of view it is know from.

Such an elaborately contrived structure could easily fall to pieces in the hands of a lesser writer. Fortunately, Lai is more than equal to the task of populating the wonderful worlds that she has created. Fox in particular is a triumphant creation. An unrepentant mischief-maker, she allows Lai's poetic sensibility and subversive sense of humour to shine through the narrative. An example is an early episode which recalls Fox's intervention in the affairs of a married couple in the ninth century, China. The husband demands a concubine and the wife, eager to escape her 'wifely duty', complies; but the wife soon discovers that she has lost her household authority as a result of her husband's absorption with the concubine. Enter Fox, who counsels the wife in how to win her husband back. This episode could almost be a traditional folk tale, except that Lai ends it with a gender-bending twist that is both amusing and incisive. At the same time, she fills the page with sumptuous descriptions—flesh that glows "like translucent jade", gowns that ripple and flow with the colours of "moving water" and "the sky before a storm"—ensuring that the subtext never overwhelms the storytelling.

In a world where new novels are as numerous (and often as insightful) as B-movies, When Fox is a Thousand is that rarest of treats: an intelligent and absorbing literary vision that seems to have sprung fully formed like Athena from the brow of Zeus...or whatever myth you may happen to believe.

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
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kuan Foo
Kuan Foo is a writer and cultural activist living in Vancouver.
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