“Fox. Socks. Box. Knox. Knox in box. Fox in socks.” These five words—ten, if you count the duplicates—are at once a distillation of modernist postulates and a radical critique of power, education, money, and patriarchy: a herald of the self-undermining (not to say postmodern) goals that forward-thinking writers (or so we are often told) pursue today.
“The poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination.” This somewhat opaque declaration from Roman Jakobson, often thrown overhand at students who ask what makes a poem a poem, means, more or less, that poems assemble their unities not so much by meaning as by sound. And so Fox in Socks does, placing sonority over sense and the acoustic properties of words over their ability to refer, pursuing the play of the sign yet arguing, almost grimly, for the impossibility of free play. “I can’t blab such blibber blubber!” Knox says back to Fox. “My tongue isn’t made of rubber.”
As we mouth his refusals, we ourselves conform: we, readers of books aloud, have pronounced exactly the tongue-tying utterance that Knox declares himself unable, or unwilling, to say. Emphasizing the feel of phonemes in a hindered mouth, Fox in Socks thus becomes at once a lesson and a parody of lessons, a demonstration of mastery (“Take it slowly. This book is dangerous!”) and a parody of all institutional power relations, especially those fostered by progressive education. Fox expects (or pretends to expect) not only that Knox will learn to chew goo, but that Knox will “choose to chew goo, too.” Knox must want to learn (so Fox keeps thinking), must want “another game to play.” When Knox exclaims, “I hate this game,” he does not deter Fox; no wonder that Knox must then devise a refusal that appears as incapacity: “Mr. Fox, sir, I won’t do it. / I can’t say it. I won’t chew it.”
Fox is at once the childlike trickster, the American English–speaking coyote who will sew up the boxes himself in order to make the prank succeed (see the gloating fox holding a needle on page 27) and the blustering adult authority, master of ticks and clocks, who thinks (erroneously) that he can make his student do anything. “That’s not easy, Mr. Fox, sir.” Making its Fox a male master, Fox in Socks leaves Knox looking ambiguously gendered—note the pink collar, the only thing he or she wears, as if only words (Knox gets called “Sir” and “Mr.”) could pin him down into the sexual binarism that controls so much else in the book, where the only identifiable woman, Sue, must do nothing but sew.
Knox then emerges as the resisting reader, the errant pupil, the child who runs away from a teacher who makes every lesson into a double-bind. Jane Austen’s prose, says the critic D. A. Miller, “is wedded to the double-bind of a style that is at once a universal standard [you must write this way] and an exclusive possession [but you can’t].” Thus also with Fox: “Here’s an easy game to play. / Here’s an easy thing to say.” You ought to be able to do what the teacher can do, but you can’t: if you could, you would not have been constantly tried and found wanting, unable to do things that even Slow Joe Crow can do: the suit he sews fit Sue, but won’t fit you. No wonder you feel all sewn up in a box.
If Fox in Socks encourages linguistic glee, taking great pleasure in how it sounds, it is also a book deeply skeptical of how, and how much, the glee shown by masters of language can be transmitted to, or even shared with, the less confident or skilled. It is, moreover, deeply hostile to capitalism: in its circular logic, sound drives sense. (W. H. Auden on Lord Byron: “The effect of a comic rhyme is as if the words, on the basis of their auditory friendship, had taken charge of the situation, as if… words had the power to create an event.”) In the same way, under familiar versions of capitalism, profit and wages and money drive human endeavor: the sign (the dollar, the word) appears to take charge of the real (the people, the fuzzy talking animals). Bim and Ben, heralded by their big drums, exchange brooms, but the brooms have no use-value (they sweep nothing up) and are not built to last. Bent, each broom breaks, and if you don’t like it—so Fox tells Knox—you can go jump in a lake: a lake which, like the speculative aspects of capitalism, produces nothing and depends on luck… on Luke Luck, who, unsurprisingly, likes lakes.
Fox in Socks finally becomes not only cautionary but revolutionary as well: the trickster gets tricked, the master deposed. “When beetles battle beetles in a puddle paddle battle / and the beetle battle puddle is a puddle in a bottle,” only then is the resistant student Knox liberated from the confident teacher Fox. (The beetles, however, stay in their subaltern place.) “Now wait a minute, Mr. Fox Socks!” says Knox. First Fox’s name gets reversed, then Fox gets literally subverted, turned over from underneath, as Knox shoves him into the bottle bottom-side-up. Fox has become, as grammar breaks down for the first time, “a tweetle beetle noodle poodle bottled paddled muddled duddled fuddled wuddled fox in socks, sir!” At which point “our game is done.”
Of course, there are things other literary works do that Fox and Knox and company cannot do; it might be worth asking more often, more clearly, what those things are.