AUGUST 12, 2016
THERE IS A SPECIAL KIND OF ANTICIPATION for a new work by Helen Oyeyemi; we know we can expect to be swept away to places we’ve never been — or places we have, reshaped through a lens that is both playful and utterly original. There is, compounding this expectation, the mystique that surrounds the author herself — a true prodigy known for publicly disdaining to attend Columbia University’s prestigious MFA program and for her wanderings across Europe. Literature, myth, and folklore are so intertwined within Oyeyemi’s texts that she seems to be in constant dialogue with them, and this may be one reason she veers so decidedly away from realism: stories and texts, not reality, would seem her predominant inspirations. People in her stories behave not as people in our experience do, or even as people in realistic stories; they behave as stylized reflections of people in stories.
Oyeyemi’s latest offering, the short story collection What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, maintains the author’s singular voice, which could not be confused with that of anyone else in fiction. It is even infectious: try reading this book for an hour and afterward writing words of your own without its style affecting yours. A teasing tone undercuts moments that might otherwise have been serious, and this tone can at times seem godlike in its detachment. Think the god Hermes, that fleet-footed trickster, and perhaps you have Oyeyemi’s style in a nutshell.
This detachment has become more apparent with time. Oyeyemi’s 2011 novel, Mr. Fox, ostensibly about love, was more a dizzying erotic dream — and a gift to lovers of language and literature — than it was grounded in emotion or relationships. Even the subsequent Boy, Snow, Bird, which features hard-hitting themes of racial and sexual trauma, rarely wavers from that teasing tone. The dazzle of Oyeyemi’s technique fully engages the reader’s mind; the heart is undisturbed. This turns out to be most true of What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours. Here, unlike in her novels, there is no continuity of character development to fool readers into imagining themselves emotionally invested. (While several characters recur throughout the collection, their names may as well be removable tags; there is little to distinguish one from another beyond superficial markers — and all speak in the omniscient Oyeyemi voice.)
There are other kinds of continuities that might draw the reader in deep. James Joyce’s “The Dead” makes the most obvious example, with impact that is cumulative, amplified by the preceding stories in Dubliners. But while there are recurring elements in What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours — perhaps too obviously, locks and keys — and also recurring characters, the collection does not build to a crescendo as Dubliners does. It wasn’t meant to. From the start, the author is riffing, throwing out random, lovely story fragments into the ether, without exploring any concept or character too deeply.
Whether you enjoy the collection will depend on how much emotional engagement you look for, how much depth of insight — and how enthralled you are by Oyeyemi’s style, here distilled to its purest essence. Riffs do not lend themselves to emotional engagement or insight, but in Oyeyemi’s hands they leave indelible, shifting images behind your eyelids like the workings of a kaleidoscope. Those images include a locked rose garden in Spain, puppets brought to life, a constantly changing constellation, and entire cities of drowned people going about their lives underwater near the Danube. The stories are set variously in London, Prague, Spain, Cambridge, and other nameless countries, but in reality they all take place in one place: Oyeyemi country. Her voice, not details of setting or local culture, entirely defines their flavor.
If the recurrence of locks and keys can be called a theme, it might be most clearly embodied in the structure of the stories themselves. Each story opens into more and more that is contained within, as if each story is a door to adjoining worlds. What you see at the outset is not in the least what you’re going to get. Unlike the work of Alice Munro, which might blend two different but thematically linked stories into one, both mutually reinforcing and illuminating one another, Oyeyemi’s infinitely nested stories seem an end in themselves, born of a limitless imagination. “‘Sorry’ Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea,” which begins with a very unorthodox weight loss clinic (clients sleep for days on end without eating — weight loss ensues) becomes a story about a mysterious “House of Locks.” This, in turn, becomes the story of a male pop star’s sexual assault on a prostitute and its effect on his audience of teen girls, with a final turn into witchcraft (involving Hecate, no less) at the end. These mini-stories might be linked by gossamer ties of narrative or theme, but it often doesn’t seem that way. Rather, the stories of What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours appear to have been written in free fall, allowing imagination and an irrepressible instinct for storytelling to dictate the way.
There are moments when genuine emotion does surface in What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, and these rarely manifest in what is spoken aloud. It is in the space of what is left unsaid that Oyeyemi occasionally reaches the heart. “Presence,” which may be the strongest story in the collection, serves as a metaphor for this effect. The story begins with almost rom-com cuteness as a woman evades her husband, in various madcap ways, because she fears an impending conversation about divorce. This evasion of direct communication becomes the essence of the story, in which a scientific experiment tests the mettle of their relationship without ever interrogating its foundations directly. Yet it’s this lack of directness that makes the story more moving, and the relationship more finely depicted. The characters’ separation brings revelations that are never articulated but are somehow, as a result, more deeply felt. The key phrase of the story is, appropriately, “I’m leaving, but everything that’s between us will stay.”
Another example features in “Drownings,” a story in a nameless Central European country, bordering the Danube, which is ruled by a monstrous tyrant. This story acts as a clear response to the literature of a particular time and place, but contains more whimsy than darkness. The exception manifests in one exchange, so understated and couched among diverse anecdotes of magic and strangeness that you could be forgiven for overlooking its gravity. The impact lies in what is unspoken:
“Is it right for me to escape this place? Those people where we used to live —”
“There was a fire and they couldn’t get out. They would have got out if they could, but they couldn’t, and that’s what killed them. If you can escape then you should.”
“But am I to blame?”
Giacomo didn’t say yes or no, but attempted to balance a leaf on the tip of Leporello’s nose.
Gender fluidity is another expression of unlocked doors, along with the mutability of sexual attraction. Various characters are either of indeterminate gender or move between them, and sexual preferences are rarely limited to a single gender. Sometimes these elements are combined with magical realism, as in the character of Rowan (whose tree-inspired name is no coincidence) in “Is Your Blood As Red As This?”:
Rowan is male to me, since he moves and speaks with a grace that reminds me of the boys and men of my Venetian youth. He’s female to Myrna. For Radha and Gustav Rowan is both male and female. Perhaps we read him along the lines of our attractions; perhaps it really is as arbitrary as that. He just shrugs and says: “Take your pick. I’m mostly tree, though.” His fellow students already had all these confusing hormone surges to deal with. So most of them stayed away, though I’m sure they all dreamed of him, her, hir, zir, a body with a tantalizing abundance of contours, this Rowan who is everything but mostly tree. I’m sure Rowan Wayland was dreamed of nonstop.
Without didacticism, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours places emphasis on the full spectrum of gender and sexuality. “A Brief History of the Homely Wench Society,” unusual in this collection for its realism, and set in Cambridge, is most explicit in its call for diversity. When Cambridge student Dayang Sharif discovers that Michael — whom she had once considered “The One” true love of her life — now prefers male partners and calls himself the more feminine name of Pepper, she meditates in a manner that speaks directly to the reader of 2016: “Who’s a homely wench? Luca is, and Day is, and so are Pepper and Thalia and Hilde and Willa and anyone who is not just content to accept an invitation but wants more people to join the party, more and more and more.”
With themes so up to the minute, the diverse swirl of periods and places in which the stories are set starts to seem less relevant. They are trappings. Romantic gardens and nameless Central European countries ruled by tyrants aside, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is about a specific time and place: our own.