The Fox and Dr. Shimamura, Christine Wunnicke (New Directions 978-0-81122-624-0, $15.95, 160pp, tp) April 2019.
The Fox and Dr. Shimamura is a puzzling, unsettling book. It has the feel of a story told half-asleep, with clear details and vague overall effect. What begins in promising magical realism veers into surrealist historical fiction, leans toward medical interests, and is likely to leave most readers behind with that turn. Christine Wunnicke is certainly a daring international voice, but her crossover potential into mainstream fiction seems limited.
The novel swings between two time periods: Dr. Shimamura – a real figure, who lived between 1862 and 1923 – in retirement, meditating on his strange, illustrious career, and Dr. Shimamura as a younger man, traveling the world to learn various nations’ techniques in neurology. Early in the book, the doctor cures multiple women from a fever in which they transform into foxes. Or in which they allow foxes to move around inside their bodies. It isn’t clear: “Shun’ichi Shimamura… witnessed the outline of a perfectly formed small fox appear, slanted, just below Kiyo’s collarbone… ‘Paroxysm,’ said the fox. Its voice was gnarled, wise, ancient. He lay there in the form of a girl, all four legs stretched out.” Passages like these fascinate, in spite of, or perhaps because of their baffling qualities.
The novel loses all momentum associated with such passages as it goes forward. Dr. Shimamura drops this mysterious fox fever and goes to Germany and France, where he studies medicine and the burgeoning field of psychology with real historical figures (Jean-Martin Charcot, Georges Gilles de la Tourette). Anyone who knows a bit about early psychology knows what to expect about doctors’ assumptions and patients’ treatment in these passages, which are not pleasant to read. The book dwells at length on how out of place Dr. Shimamura feels in Europe, which is surely accurate but fails to compel.
Meanwhile, in retirement, a housemaid Dr. Shimamura has hired remains an illogical character. Her real name is probably Sei, but the doctor calls her Anna or Luise for reasons unknown. She brings him a large bucket of water every morning that he does not need, also for reasons unknown. She is either a nurse or a patient, and the confusion between these roles echoes the situation of Dr. Shimamura himself, who may have been carrying the fox fever all these years.
Toward the end of The Fox and Dr. Shimamura, two characters from the doctor’s initial journey to cure the fever reappear. It’s a strange, awkward scene, less closing a narrative circle than finding a buoy that’s drifted too close to shore, bobbing brightly and irrelevantly.
“You remember, don’t you, Doctor, in Shimane, back then, that summer, it was so long ago, wasn’t it?”
“Ah yes,” mouthed Shimamura. “Of course. Oh life, life.”
Perhaps, this scene suggests, the fox fever has really been malaria all along. Perhaps Dr. Shimamura has deliberately forgotten his assistant, and told tales of his “accidental” death to erase a little of the world’s practicality, to make it a bit more wild and mysterious. But piecing together such a metaphor requires an understanding of a novel’s overall thrust, and that quality absolutely eludes the reader. The book is opaque and meandering, difficult to follow or to trust.
That is not to suggest that it’s a bad book. The craftsmanship at work here isn’t user-friendly and is not intended to be, which makes it a fairly inaccessible book, but it has garnered glowing reviews all around the world. Sometimes, the prose takes flight unexpectedly: “Then the umbrella slipped out of her hands and she stood still, a white triangle with asymmetries as complicated as a woman’s soul, as complex as the love of the bamboo princess who sinks at the feet of the emperor under a full moon.” However, for those whose reading interests lean toward clarity of plot and purpose, The Fox and Dr. Shimamura is not one to take home.
Katharine Coldiron is the author of Ceremonials (Kernpunkt Press), an SPD fiction bestseller. Her work as a book critic has appeared in The Washington Post, The Believer, The Guardian, and many other places. She lives in California and at kcoldiron.com.
This review and more like it in the September 2019 issue of Locus.
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