In Man Booker Prize winner George Saunders’ new release, a fox learns to speak “Yuman" by eavesdropping on his human neighbours. Fox 8, whose name lends the title to this delightful novella, is straight out of Aesop’s Fables, though his speech is closer to what (Saunders imagines) fox-speak would be. In a letter addressed to “Deer Reeder", Fox 8 begins with a candid confession: “First may I say, sorry for any werds I spel rong. Because I am a fox! So don’t rite or spel perfect." The imperfect grammar and spelling, charming device that it is, could sound too cute for some “yuman" ears. But it’s an easy hurdle to cross. As with most of Saunders’ writing, this little tale has a big heart.
Fox 8 lives in a forest in an unnamed region in the US, close to human habitation. A prowler among people, he is enamoured of “yuman" ways: He observes a family’s life from outside their window, listens in as the mother reads out stories to her children every night, and picks up their language by and by. But humans are, of course, not content to leave the foxes alone. Soon, their forest is razed, habitat destroyed, and food sources wiped out, all in order to build a shining new “mawl" and a “Par King" area. Soon, Fox 8’s “groop members" begin to starve and die. So he decides to try and make friends with humans and seek food at the “fud court" of the “mawl". He is joined in his mission by his friend, Fox 7, but the duo ends up in a sorry mess.
Displaced from his group, alone and loitering, Fox 8 eventually lands up with another band of foxes, who welcome him. But, in spite of their warmth, he can’t forget his old mates. Worse, he is unable to trace them again, nor can he comprehend the mindless cruelty of “yumans", who are otherwise clever, resourceful and enterprising creatures. By the end of the book, Saunders inhabits Fox 8’s voice so completely that it’s hard to even mildly berate him for anthropomorphizing these poor creatures, whose lives are being ruined by silly humans. Fox 8 makes us contemplate the follies of our own kind with shame and teaches us to look at the inhabitants of the wild with new respect.