Borderless Text: On Helen Oyeyemi’s “Parasol Against the Axe”

By Hannah KofmanMarch 23, 2024

Borderless Text: On Helen Oyeyemi’s “Parasol Against the Axe”

Parasol Against the Axe by Helen Oyeyemi

HELEN OYEYEMI has been plagued by the label of magical realism throughout her career, refusing it as one would an ill-fitting garment. For Oyeyemi, reality is filled with magic. “It’s something to do with how I perceive,” she explained in an interview with Granta. The gift of her many books—Oyeyemi has published eight novels, one story collection, and two plays—is that we get to perceive this way too; magic becomes synonymous with the real.

Oyeyemi’s latest novel, Parasol Against the Axe (2024), animates the city of Prague in all of its eccentricities. It is a Prague novel, but it is undoubtedly Oyeyemi’s Prague that we visit. Oyeyemi has said that she was nervous about taking on the city she has lived in for the past decade as her subject: “I was addressing this place that I know I love when I don’t know how it feels about me.” One of the ways Oyeyemi writes through this hesitation is by granting Prague its own voice and, at times, an actual body too—the city of Prague is sometimes our narrator, sometimes a man named Wendell Wechsler, sometimes a Czech cartoon character. When I first told my friend this, he groaned.

It’s more compelling than it initially sounds. The frame story of Parasol Against the Axe has a simple articulation: Prague-as-narrator relays the time that our antihero, named Hero, came to the city for the bachelorette party of an old friend, Sofie, on an invitation she was certainly expected to decline. The third member of the old friendship trio, Dorothea, has declined the invitation but nonetheless mysteriously arrives in Prague on revenge business—business that eventually brings all three friends together in a violent confrontation.

Yet, characteristic of her boundless, inventive fiction, Oyeyemi’s novel has a prominent book-within-a-book structure that complicates any supposed straightforwardness: its many characters encounter and read a mysterious book called Paradoxical Undressing, the text of which frequently interrupts the main body of the novel. Oyeyemi turns the conventions of found texts on their head—Paradoxical Undressing is far from a stagnant, historical object: it is a book that changes depending on when it is read and who is reading it. This “pamphlet slim” book is unreliable, constantly shifting the ground below its readers, and this shiftiness grants the surrounding larger novel a roaming quality. Unassuming, with “pages folded over on themselves and open[ing] out to a size quadruple the length and width of the cover,” such textual sprawl is enacted by Oyeyemi in the plot itself. One cannot help but feel that the embedded narratives are essential to her desire to capture some quality of her fictive Prague; there’s no suitable metaphor, so Oyeyemi creates one: a pamphlet-book that is at once deeply tangible, irrefutably there, and yet also highly subjective, more than just a bit tricky.

The timeline of the novel is a weekend, but the story is liberal with its detours. In the first few pages, Oyeyemi shows her hand: Polly, the woman Sofie is marrying, has a “style as a theater director [that] was so unyieldingly linear it drew blood and tears.” So, what do Oyeyemi’s nearly compulsive digressions do, other than liberate us from what would otherwise be painstaking? Above all, they’re fun. Though true to Oyeyemi’s affinity for multivalent storytelling, there’s a more compelling politics to her roaming too. She toys with the illusion of codification: text and story become impermanent, wily things—perhaps they always were? This does not negate their power but rather enhances it. Texts, unlike people, unlike cities, are without boundaries—they’re borderless.

The first time Hero picks up Paradoxical Undressing, the story she finds there is about Mr. Z’s secondhand bookshop. The store doesn’t accept money as payment but instead functions on an exchange system; books beget other books through a slippery and unpredictable set of rules:

Once a member of staff tried to explain that Mr. Z’s aim is to welcome all the samizdat and tamizdat home, keeping that destination as flexible as the editions themselves are. Mr. Z doesn’t know—no one knows—if it’s too late, or whether there’s such a thing as “too late” when it comes to books and remedying the punishments incurred by those who write them, read them, and circulate them. But this is the best he can do …

The staff member who explains this is promptly fired by Mr. Z, but we can understand from their illicit explanation some of Oyeyemi’s shared priorities. Samizdat and tamizdat, forms born out of state censorship, are terms that together refer to the subversive circulation and publication of texts deemed threatening by various Eastern bloc governments during the Cold War. Critically, censorship admits the propulsive force of the written word in promoting a multiplicity of thought and opinion; books pose problems for specific brands of nationalism and control—they transgress the rigidity of borders.

Hero Tojosoa journeys to Prague for the bachelorette party she couldn’t care less about because there is a letter on the loose in her hometown “hounding” her. From the outset, the story is spurred into motion by itinerant and aggressive text that follows its reader. Words hound, threaten, cause damage; this threat is actualized at the climax of the book, when the three friends are reunited because Dorothea’s day job is to enact revenge on behalf of her paying clients, and her current client wants revenge on Sofie for something she and Hero did years earlier. Sofie and Hero’s crime involved multiple media—they created visual and textual porn that catered to personal fantasies, often awful ones, and the ex-wife who hires Dorothea wants to hold Sofie accountable for the predatory actions her husband pursued in real life. Sofie posed for photos and Hero manned the text exchanges that brought the images to life. We hear the echo of the question first introduced in Mr. Z’s bookshop: what is the punishment incurred by those who write, read, and circulate text?

Hero’s trailing letter problem raises the same questions—the letter she is avoiding was written by the subject of her journalistic exposé, a man who shortly thereafter kills himself. The questions of what text can do, what Hero’s text has already done, and who is responsible accumulate—Oyeyemi layers the problems posed by text on top of each other to form a teetering wedding cake; the precarious figures atop the cake are Dorothea and Hero, ready to vertiginously tumble … or perhaps the figures are actually Hero and Wendell Wechsler. Wechsler is a character introduced late—he is Prague personified—and Hero ends up suddenly, jarringly marrying him shortly after Prague banishes Dorothea from its borders. The city is storyteller, seducer, and its very own border patrol—unafraid to exercise autonomy in ejecting and detaining visitors at its own temperamental discretion. Barring the fact that the groom is in fact a city, this more or less resembles a traditional marriage plot: our Hero’s suitor vanquishes her enemy and then they get hitched.


The version of Paradoxical Undressing that ex–best friend Dorothea encounters begins with an epigraph from Jane Austen’s gothic parody, Northanger Abbey (1817): “Alas! if the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?” Oyeyemi takes the epigraph from Austen’s famed satirical defense of the novel as a form: the protagonist of Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland, is a character who has read too many gothic novels and lives her life constantly expecting plot reveals and mystery. Morland is a “bad reader,” but she is also an ardent and admirable lover of story. Oyeyemi, too, vaunts the romanticization of stories. After all, Hero feels a nearly sexual pull towards the pamphlet-book Paradoxical Undressing that awaits her in her hotel room. Throughout her career, Oyeyemi has played with the gothic form and its preoccupations—most notably in her 2009 novel White Is for Witching—and her work has been associated with the postcolonial gothic, an extension of the historically British genre that collapses the distance between the known and the foreign, defamiliarizing the concept of home and revealing the fraught heart of colonialism’s project to construct a home in an occupied land. Parasol Against the Axe explicitly furthers her engagement with this genre—the found texts, the haunting past, the villain, the marriage—solidifying it with a metatextual reference to Northanger Abbey.

In multiple interviews, Oyeyemi has refuted the suggestion that she has a discernible style, even though she is consistently precise, bold, sometimes funny, often flippant—a writer who embeds big truths in segments of sentences. Perhaps her position stems from the fact that her style’s most prominent quality is its protean nature, always transforming to accommodate the stories she wants to tell. Parasol Against the Axe is at its strongest in the author’s physical descriptions of the city: a “soufflé of sunlight and shadow,” a room that feels “higher up […] as if it were teetering atop a stem,” “buildings that splashed their way down the riverbanks like lava from a volcano that had erupted pastel hues,” “effigies who lounged with grainy insouciance on long pillows of stone above the double doors of buildings,” “pavements […] encrusted with tables, chairs, foam-topped glasses, and perspiring organisms.” These characterizations are so dynamic, so full of movement, that Oyeyemi makes the historic seem new again.

And still, there comes a point where, regardless of Oyeyemi’s talent, the liveliness of her prose and imagination, one wants to blurt out, “No more! No more stories!” The perils of endless digression materialize in the fact that, by the end of the novel, the final sewing-up of the primary plot does not mean that much, if only because one has not spent enough time in that particular story. The only people who possess the limitless patience necessary, it seems, are Oyeyemi’s characters, all of whom are uncritical lovers of story. No one ever frustratingly shuts Paradoxical Undressing; in fact, every time the book-within-a-book ends, it is because the text tells its reader to return to the world. I cannot say that I would have been so patient. Shortly after the section of Northanger Abbey that Oyeyemi excerpts, Austen turns her pen on the critic:

Let us leave it to the Reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried.

Unashamedly, this Reviewer loves novels. It is only when they start to resemble too much a collection of stories that I grow weary.

Oyeyemi writes, in Prague’s voice, that all cities incorporate “some degree of optical illusion.” In one of the most beautiful moments of the novel, Hero gets lost while out on a walk:

Taken unawares, she stepped onto a bridge lined with statues that curved her sense of the sky above her and the water beneath her in such delicate increments that upon reaching its midpoint she seemed to be either approaching a position behind herself or coming from somewhere she’d never been.

Oyeyemi gets at the inescapable illusion of subjectivity, particularly the thing we most forget: it is a two-way street. The city is an active participant, chewing and spitting out some while gleefully bedding and wedding others. The only time I went to Prague, I couldn’t wait to leave. Maybe it felt the same way about me.

LARB Contributor

Hannah Kofman is a writer living in Los Angeles. She is currently working on her first novel.


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