We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Serpent’s Tail, 2014, 341 p. Borrowed from a threatened library.

 We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves cover

Firstly, this is a very good book indeed; and a consciously literary endeavour. Fowler’s first person narrator, Rosemary Cooke, frequently addresses the reader, digresses, makes asides, approaches her story obliquely, moves it forward and backward in time. She tells us in the prologue what she is about to do. Start in the middle. And later, in a cell, awaiting interrogation by the FBI she reflects on what she will say, “I would not only tell the tale but also comment on it.” Quite. By the end, though, she has decided that stories can begin and end anywhere.

When she was young Rosemary never stopped speaking. The reasons why, and why she gradually stopped doing so, are revealed over the course of the novel. Up until she was five years old Rose had lived with her mother, father, brother and sister. On returning from what she perceived as a banishment to her grandparents’ house she discovers her own family has moved house but it is her sister who has been sent away. This central circumstance is so essential to the novel that any discussion of it beyond generalities would reveal too much but it is its ramifications, the nature of her sister, Fern, and the effects both of these have on Rosemary and her brother, Lowell, which drive Fowler’s story.

Unsurprisingly, tensions abound. Rose tells us, “Antagonism in my family comes wrapped in layers of code, sideways feints, full deniability. I believe the same can be said of many families.” This is most likely a nod to Tolstoy’s similar phraseology. Through Rosemary, Fowler tells us elsewhere, “In most families, there is a favourite child. Parents deny it and maybe they truly don’t see it, but it’s obvious to the children. Unfairness bothers children greatly.” Incidentally, the Cooke family had a dog called Tamara Press. Quite why Fowler chose the name of a 1960s Russian shot-putter for this is obscure (to me at least.)

Much play is made of the unreliability of memory. Rose recalls an incident from her childhood where she remembers her father deliberately driving over a cat but he was not the sort of person to do such a thing. She both believes it happened and also that it didn’t and refers to it as her own personal Schrödinger’s cat. She also says that language “simplifies, solidifies, codifies, mummifies” memories and remembers her father telling Lowell that language and communication are two different things. In a neat line connecting Rose’s use of contact lenses with her sister’s disappearance she says, “It’s what you do with disposables; you get rid of them.”

Rose twice emphasises her experience that, “Where you succeed will never matter so much as where you fail” and refers to the rift in the family as “A monkey on my back….” but in what seems an authorial interpolation, “When I run the world, librarians will be exempt from tragedy.” Her father was a researcher into animal behaviour and the book is run through with references to such research. “‘You can train any animal into any behaviour on cue if it’s a natural behaviour to begin with. Racism, sexism, speciesism – all natural human behaviours… triggered any time by any unscrupulous yahoo with a pulpit… Mobbing…Bullying. Empathy.’” The book is very much Rose’s story, her umwelt (the world as it is experienced by a particular organism.) Humans it seems are much more imitative than other apes.

For various (and different) reasons I was reminded of both William Boyd’s Brazzaville Beach and Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum.

There are not many novels which go into detail on the concept of theory of mind or discourse on embedded mental states and imputation. Yet these discursions seem a natural part of the narrative making for a tremendously well worked out and impressively rendered novel.

Pedant’s corner:- A flock of seagulls were grazing (a flock was grazing,) hieroglyphic (hieroglyph.) Fowler does, however, receive plus points for culs-de-sac.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

free hit counter script