I came to Kij Johnson’s The Fox Woman after reading her award winning short story, 26 Monkeys, Also The Abyss. From these two works it would seem that Johnson is an author of sensitivity. She deftly weaves wonder, beauty and sorrow together while preserving mystery, and a respect for both her characters and her readers. She leaves room within the stories for her characters to breathe, and for her readers to reflect without heavy-handed explanations of theme or meaning.
The Fox Woman takes the form of an epistolary novel, with the events and—more significantly—the internal development of the characters being revealed through the journal entries of Kaya no Yoshifuji, his wife, Shikujo, and Kitsune, a little fox who is infatuated with Yoshifuji. The story develops slowly, rather like a tree awakening into bloom. While some readers seem to have been put off by this oblique development, I find that it gives breathing space for the characters, a narrative legitimacy, and helps give the reader time to realize that the real nature of this novel is not that of a neatly plotted series of events, but rather more a meditation upon the realities of our own lives, our fantasies ritualized into legitimacy, our own courteous lies and kindnesses.
The characters in this book are not heroic. Nor are they idealized. Yoshifuji has failed at court, and he is increasingly distant from his wife and son. Kitsune, his wife, who takes as her models the idealized characters of monogatari tales, is ever-perfect in her wifely courtesy, and unintentionally aloof in her perfection. The fox woman, herself, is not treated with the light hand of the fantasist, but is constantly faced with the all too real consequences of her actions. One reviewer expressed a desire “to stab all of the characters in the eye with sharpened sticks,” for their sin of irritating the reader. Others have indicted the characters of the crime of dullness. I think these readers are missing the point. Yoshifuji, Shikujo, and Kitsune act as we act, think as we think, dream as we dream. They are guilty of being infected with our own misguided mediocrity. If we recognize our kinship to them, we stand to gain from their painful if fictional lives. If we stand over them, accusing them, failing to recognize how we are never very far from their delusional mendacity, then we will continue to live as they lived–fictional lives, built on a thin and failing glamour, doomed to face the truth only when there is no less painful delusion in which to escape.
Kij Johnson gives us beauty and sensitivity. She gives us a chance to see some small way into the truth of our lives, and she does so gently and without judgment. In this, she gives us a gift worthy of reverence.