The Intricate Simplicity of Flash Fiction: Review of The Fox’s Tower and Other Tales by Yoon Ha Lee
The Fox’s Tower and Other Tales. By Yoon Ha Lee. Andrews McMeel Publishing, October 5, 2021.
The Fox’s Tower and Other Stories is a poetic, rapid-moving collection of flash fiction published by Lee over the years across various blogspots, online journals and fiction magazines. The stories featured in the collection were mostly commissioned by Lee’s ardent social media followers over the years. They were, according to Lee, a way to “make quick cash.” And quick indeed these stories are. Lee’s fables move at breakneck speed among cuddly foxes, birds, witches, and dragons, delivered like fairy-tales situated somewhere on the edges of reality. Well-established as a science-fiction writer, this collection shows Lee moving in the direction of pure allegorical fantasy, evoking powerful imagery and imparting a number of social and cultural ideals.
The collection encompasses 25 short stories, barely spanning 75 pages, promising a quick and entertaining read. The fox’s tower from the title evokes a fairy-tale-like setting, inviting the fantasy-lovers, but is only a part of one story. The protagonist of the narrative is imprisoned in the titular tower and visited every night by a shape-shifting fox, which takes the form of his lover. The other stories, too, explore the nature of love, understanding and wisdom, as their protagonists face magical creatures, talking animals and other humans, learning from one another about the world and its workings. Still, I found some of the stories to be dreary and presumptuous, failing to deliver the message completely, as if Lee had been intent on writing microfiction at the cost of developing his characters or ideas completely. The whips of narrative strains may find their dearest admirers in old hands at flash fiction, as their quick succession often leaves the readers wanting more. Moreover, the fantasy setting suffers from the form, as one of the strongest genre-markers is the detail invested into worldbuilding, which, unfortunately, lacks here.
Despite the tales’ brevity, Lee’s poetic expression often paints a number of vivid images with just a few carefully selected words. It is easy to imagine the former angel fixing the wings of other heaven-patrollers while enjoying each other’s company (“The Workshop”), the curious and just fox who hones her cunning through honesty (“The Youngest Fox”), or, in the title story, the fox in human form visiting a prisoner to join hands and breath in a passionate embrace. Lee writes eloquently, employing metaphor and plain language in a swirling combination, creating a fine balance between what is said and what is left to imagination. In “The Dragon Festival”, Lee transports the reader to “a tidy planet whose clouds wrote combinatorial equations across the sky in the morning and sieved the light into rich colors in the evening,” where robots are building a dragon of their own, for they have none there.
The whole collection brims with intricate brush strokes of half-painted pictures, leaving just enough to the imagination. If you are an avid reader of poetic landscapes, look no further.
The tales are imbued with fairy-tale sensibilities, whose characters are often recognisable archetypes plucked from objective reality and suddenly placed into enchanted forests, multicoloured skies and those Fachwerkhaus villages, carrying the presumption of implied or expressly stated morals, which are sometimes difficult to pinpoint. The reader feels as if he or she is meant to understand a deeper message of the story, but these are elusive and nearly impossible to phrase, giving the collection the air of presumptuousness. For instance, the protagonist of “Two Bakeries”, the owner of one of the two establishments, is astounded to see her flour-handed rival sell only one type of plain bread just as successfully as she sells her wide variety of breads and pastries. When she inquires her neighbour about how this transpired, she responds calmly:
“When people go to your bakery,” she said kindly, “they are looking forward to the world’s riches. When people come to my bakery, they are remembering hunger.”
“Thank you,” the first baker said, and she bought two loaves on her way out.
The collection is filled with similar messages conveyed through heightened speech, tales of good deeds and, more importantly, good thoughts. There is an admirable queer representation, with a number of protagonists openly pursuing same-sex relationships, adding new flavour to what is accepted as a fairy-tale metanarrative.
While a number of stories do not deliver the fairy-tale promise of a traditional moral, others take an imperiously didactic and moralistic note; that disparity may dampen the experience of reading this book. Furthermore, I am loath to admit that a number of stories suffer from their brevity, accomplishing neither character development nor moralistic messages. Abrupt endings of tales such as “The Crane Wife” or “Dew-Weighted Roses” leave much to be desired, as they are predicated on human error and failure of spirit, but are never resolved in a way which demonstrates that the characters have learned from their mistakes. While Lee is aiming to write in a fairy-tale tradition that benefits from allegory and open-endedness in order to leave space for subjective interpretation, the restrictions of the format limit such readings. In fact, the fast pace of the stories leaves little breathing room for interpreting unclear codas as one may find themselves rushing headfirst into the next fable. On the other hand, if you find yourself craving eloquent and evocative landscapes and are willing to pore over these beguiling stories for a while instead of being carried away by their pace, this book is for you. Brevity notwithstanding, these tales contain an array of entertaining, educational and enchanting characters and settings, which are sure to occupy and interest a wide readership.
A great lover of literature and complex analyses, Danica Stojanovic has found her life calling in academic circles concerned with anglophone literature. She is currently writing a PhD on adapting fantasy literature for the stage and planning to conquer the world of universities in the future.
This review was commissioned by editor Ashumi Shah in October 2021; the author and editor are friends and colleagues. The review was edited by Jake Casella Brookins and copyedited by Chad A. Hines. A review copy was not arranged by ARB.