The story of Fox 8 is, of course, an environmental one – the way humanity has systematically set about destroying the natural world it claims to cherish.
There’s something else at play here, though. Saunders has always been a writer of allegories and fables. One of his most brilliant stories is Adams, the tale of a wildly escalating row between neighbours that spirals into acts of unspeakable cruelty. That story was read by many as a satirical take on the Iraq war and WMDs... It’s no stretch to read Fox 8 as an allegorical take on the current state of US politics. It’s a story about cultural difference and tribalism, about greed and the destruction of the American landscape. Above all else, it’s a story packed with the kind of moral didacticism that we expect to get from a certain type of children’s story – all about respecting others and the importance of basic decency.
Every author is allowed to write a little bagatelle, and if, as George Saunders has done, you have also won the Man Booker Prize – with Lincoln In The Bardo – such a frolic is more than excusable. Fox 8 is an animal fable and it will take most readers less than an hour to get through. It is illustrated by Chelsea Cardinal, whose line drawings in red and black are effectively sweet and simple; since this is a sweet and simple book. It has a lot of charm, and, as one would expect, a degree of melancholy and anger given Saunders’ previous work.
While Fox 8 is much simpler and shorter - a long short story or short novella - a similar duality is at play here, and Chelsea Cardinal's sketch-like, childlike drawings capture it perfectly, reflecting the tone of the book. Her foxes are red and almost everything else is black. The colour coding is a deft way of conveying that in Saunders' text the foxes represent love, suffering, passion and adventure; in a monochromatic, myopic world, they have guts and heart.
This, then, is a sweet little morality tale about disillusionment, cruelty, inequality and, finally, hope. It’s also a more complex commentary on the way language and stories themselves function. Saunders is a master of the form: his previous collections, including most recently Tenth of December, have been high-wire acts of ventriloquism that blend technicolour social satire with a deep seam of compassion. In fact Fox 8 bridles against the way stories can present a simplistic view of heroes and villains: he objects to the way chickens, bears, owls and foxes are typically depicted in children’s stories, for instance. But he also understands their power for inspiring empathy and the usefulness (if not the limitations) of happy endings. He thinks his story is a “bumer” because it has no “up lift”; it’s up to the reader to give it one by being “niser”. It feels like literature enacted as a form of activism. Not many writers could get away with this, but somehow Saunders carries it off.
Saunders is that rare writer who is utterly original, inventive – yet accessible – with a grasp on the human condition only found elsewhere in Tolstoy or Chekhov...The story is wonderfully illustrated by Chelsea Cardinal, which adds to the fairy tale feel – but this is very much an adult read.