Friday, August 23, 2013

Mirror Recognition: Karen Joy Fowler's WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES

If only there were a way to review—or even be aware of—Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves without knowing the premise that drives the story, which the narrator withholds for more chapters than I had thought likely. I tried to read the book that way, taking in its story without seeing it altered by what I knew was coming. Read that way, however, the story isn't particularly engaging. There's a cleverness to the narrative voice, and the events move smoothly, but none of the early characters felt vivid or realized enough for me to even recognize them when they reappeared later in the novel, and, lacking the novel's central organizing problem, the early events sound too much like a standard family drama, lacking a sense that some great doom had befallen everyone, which is what would have helped give the first section some weight.

What's initially untold, though certainly known by most readers, is that the narrator, Rosemary, was, for the first five years of her life, raised alongside Fern, a chimpanzee; Fern was her sister, in some ways her twin, and Fern's disappearance from the narrator's life, and from the life of her family, has left damage, anger, and a hole no one will mention. We find Rosemary in college now, dealing with both memories and suppressed memories of Fern, unsettling new relationships, and the possible reappearance of her brother, who disappeared some years ago on—she believes—a quest to rescue Fern from who-knows-where.

There's much in this novel that is wonderful. Often I paused to marvel at or reflect on certain clever lines, philosophical queries, or scientific observations. The novel is concerned with how we see ourselves and how others see us, and, through Rosemary's first-person narration, we appreciate how little we know of the minds of others or even our own mind and motivations. The story's arc is a fine one, resolving well even while forcing new questions on us, but I often felt that the most interesting aspects weren't allowed room to completely develop. I recognize Fowler's desire to use the secondary characters to delve—at more oblique angles—into the same questions the central relationship delves into, but those efforts felt schematic to me. Even Rosemary and Fern seem too often at arm's-length. Since Rosemary's only memories of Fern are (conveniently) from the time before we tend to form solid memories, the impressionistic (though often precisely described) presence of Fern is understandable, but even when brought close, Fern slips away. (I never felt I could pin down the parents either.) All of this can be justified as serving the question, "Can a human truly know a non-human animal?" but I wanted something more. Perhaps the story felt too incredible, no matter how Fowler worked to keep it grounded in our world—and her delay in talking about Rosemary may have added to that sense that Fern was never completely there.

The novel also moves into practical areas beyond the "merely" philosophical, asking exactly why we should "have dominion" over all the non-speaking animals of the world, and asking, too, what we ought to be doing to save them from our dominion. While I liked that the novel moved in that direction, it felt like an idea that should have saturated the story from its first moments, regardless of the persistent naiveté of the narrator.

The title, by the way, is perfect, as you'll see.


Calvin said...

I enjoyed this novel very much, although I was worried when I started reading it, as my own novel-in-progress also has a chimpanzee in a major role, albeit not as major as here. Fortunately after reading it I think my own is different enough. Though I am not nearly a skilled a writer as Karen.

When I mentioned my concern to Karen (yes, name-dropping here), she asked me what happens to the chimp. When I told her, she laughed. That was nice.

Currently reading "The Good Lord Bird" which I am sure will show up here at some point. Enjoying very much, kind of a counterpoint to "Southern Cross the Dog" and "Americanah."

William Preston said...

Remember DC comics back in the '60s? They figured every comic could be improved by the addition of a gorilla. (It's not a chimp, but still.)

I just read a story that had something similar to a story I'm working on. Had me worried. Then the writer did something completely different with the premise, and the knot in my gut dissipated.

"The Good Lord Bird" does look interesting. Thanks for pointing me toward it!