We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves - Karen Joy FowlerThe latest novel by Karen Joy Fowler contains a massive plot twist. It is perhaps not as spectacular as the one that Nick Harkaway pulled in The Gone Away World, but it is much harder to keep secret. Many reviewers have not tried. I have a great deal of sympathy with Henry Nicholls of The Guardian who said:

To reveal what that premise is or even to hint at it would, in my view, be a travesty, which does make reviewing it rather hard.

Or Barbara Kingsolver at the New York Times who resorted to a spoiler warning:

To experience this novel exactly as the author intended, a reader should avoid the flap copy and everything else written about it. Including this review.

And this one, of course.

The problem is that while it is fairly easy to discuss The Gone Away World without touching on the substance of the plot twist, the thing that is hidden at the start of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is central to the nature of the book. To avoid mentioning it, I have to avoid telling you what the book is all about.

Of course we wouldn’t love Karen Joy Fowler so much if she made our reading lives easy.

What I can tell you is that the book is a tale of a seriously dysfunctional family. We hear this story from Rosemary Cooke as an adult woman, looking back both on her life at university, and her childhood, both of which were times of great emotional trauma for her. Rosemary is perhaps not totally reliable as a narrator, partly because she was at the center of these events, and partly because she has come to doubt her own memories. The way in which we create narratives for our lives, and then remember them as fact, is one of many interesting issues explored in the book.

I can also tell you, because I asked Karen if it was OK when I interviewed her, that another theme of the book is that of animal rights. When Rosemary is five, her sister, Fern, disappears from her life. A few years after this her brother, Lowell, runs away from home. We later learn that Lowell has joined the Animal Liberation Front and is wanted by the FBI for “domestic terrorism” (blowing up research labs and liberating the animals held there). The myopia that mankind displays in assuming that it is the only intelligent and self-aware life form on the planet, and that this gives it the right to exploit all other forms of life, is another major theme of the book.

In reading We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves I was reminded of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. That discuses how a group of well-meaning human spacefarers cause a great deal of harm on an alien world, at least in part because of the preconceptions that they bring with them on their journey. Russell, of course, is also talking about how European explorers damaged the native cultures of places that they “discovered”, and Fowler isn’t only talking about animals.

While at university, Rosemary studies Thomas More’s Utopia, a book famous for supposedly describing an ideal society. I say “supposedly” because anyone who has actually read the book, or indeed read a bit about it, will find what More portrays to be a long way from what we would regard as ideal. The society that More describes appears to be well on the way to becoming the Eloi from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. Citizens live elegant lives, and fill their minds with beautiful thoughts, but they are able to do so only because everything that is bad in the world is hidden away from them, and done by someone else, usually slaves.

Utopia is the life of the 1%. What Fowler is saying is that if we widen our definition of society to include animals than all humans are the 1%.

We lie to ourselves about how good our society is because we refuse to see the bad things that allow it to exist. Those bad things might be sweat shops making cheap clothes in Bangladesh, or cheap electronics in China. They might be favelas being cleared in Brazil so that tourists coming for the soccer World Cup won’t see any poor people. Or it might be animals being used as subjects in experiments to find out if what we are doing to them might be harmful to humans.

“The world runs,” Lowell said, “on the fuel of this endless, fathomless misery. People know it, but they don’t mind what they don’t see. Make them look and they mind, but you’re the one they hate, because you’re the one who made them look.”

The need for humans to be the heroes of their own stories is personified in the book by Harlow, a young drama student who befriends Rosemary at university. Harlow is one of those girls who is effortlessly drop-dead gorgeous, which perhaps explains her need for something more than just being the center of everyone’s attention.

Rosemary, in contrast, just wants a quiet life. When the circumstances of her childhood become public knowledge, she shies away from the fame offered to her. The media circus scares her, and rightly so. The media is, after all, obsessed with making up stories.

In watching Rosemary trying to make sense of her life, I was struck by how embedded in her own story she was. As a child she was far more innocent and open to experience, but equally far less experienced. There is a paradox in that by becoming more self-aware, what we become aware of may only be stories that we have created for ourselves.

Creating stories is, of course, what writers do, and Fowler has once again done so brilliantly. Although the book contains a great deal that is upsetting, it also sugar coats the pill with the charming personality of Rosemary. Not that she is by any means innocent in all this, but she faces the world with a wry, self-deprecating humor that allows us to forgive her, both for her part in the drama, and for what she opens our eyes to see. Here’s an early example of her looking back on her childhood.

Our parents, on the other hand, had shut their mouths and the rest of my childhood took place in that odd silence. They never reminisced about the time they had to drive halfway back to Indianapolis because I’d left Dexter Poindexter, my terry-cloth penguin (threadbare, ravaged by love — as who amongst us is not) in a gas station restroom, although they often talk about the time our friend Marjorie Weaver left her mother-in-law in the exact same place. Better story, I grant you.

Rosemary tells a very good story, because she is a character in the hands of a very good writer. What’s more, while this book contains no science fiction whatsoever, it is very much about the practice of science, and about learning to relate to non-human species. I’m not in the slightest bit surprised that it is on the Nebula short list, and a nominee for the prestigious mainstream PEN/Faulkner Award.

For more information about Karen Joy Fowler, see the SF Encyclopedia.

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One thought on “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

  1. Hi, I would just like to say that i really enjoyed this book and I also thought that you did a fantastic job reviewing it. I thought you really captured the essence of the book without spoiling it for others. 🙂

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