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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

December 16, 2013

Somewhere, a few months ago, I thought I’d read about Karen Joy Fowler’s novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Perhaps I heard about it on one of the few podcasts I’ve ever tried to listen to, at Reading the End. Although I will listen to audiobooks while driving, I have little patience for getting information out loud and will not do it if there is any chance I can get the same information written down. As I get older, I’m getting more and more curmudgeonly about this—give me text. Let me skim through it and read the parts I think are good. Don’t give it to me at your speaking pace, which is a lot slower than my reading pace.

Anyway, if I’d heard about this novel, that would help to explain the fact that I didn’t remember exactly what it was about when I started reading it. I’d picked it up at the library, from an endcap shelf, and when I got it home, it turned out to be a large print edition, which I had no objection to because that meant I could read it in public without my reading glasses, while sitting at the car repair place, and not have to fumble with the glasses when they called my name. It also meant that it didn’t come with the kinds of blurbs and introductions other editions have.

So I got all the way to the part where an important secret is revealed without remembering the secret. Once I got there, I thought, oh yeah, that’s what I heard about this novel. But I didn’t know it ahead of time, which is the best way to read this book if you can.

If you have not yet read the book, please stop reading this review; I loved it and think you should read it. That is all you need to know.

Usually I try to write reviews that don’t give away the secret of a work of fiction (and by the way, if you still haven’t read The Gone-Away World, why not? I have preserved the fun of the secret for you!). But with this novel, how good it is is wrapped up in the way it’s told–the way the secrets are revealed, even to the narrator.

The narrator of the novel, Rosemary, was five years old when one of the central events of her life occurred, so as she tells her story, she is also piecing it together from her own memory and stories told by her family members.

Very early in this novel, thinking back to the five-year-old self who had been left to spend a week at her grandparents’ house, Rosemary says that her father had “been diagnosed with diabetes a few years back and shouldn’t have been drinking at any time. Instead he’d become a secret drinker. It kept Mom on high alert and I worried sometimes that their marriage had become the sort Inspector Javert might have had with Jean Valjean.” This is the way memory works, for Rosemary. It’s filtered through years of experience until cause and effect can get confused. At this point, we later discover, her father had only just begun to drink. But the way Rosemary puts things is so funny and compelling! As a person who was frequently, as a child, accused of being “beside myself,” those were some of the moments of the novel I liked best, when Rosemary and her sister were completely beside themselves, in a whirl of excitement and joy and loudness.

An early warning of what you will find in the novel is this description of early 1970’s psychologists: “Psychologists didn’t leave their work at the office. They brought it home. They conducted experiments around the breakfast table, made freaks of their own families, and all to answer questions nice people wouldn’t even think to ask.”

After learning what Rosemary’s sister and brother are like, you find out that her sister was a chimpanzee, and that she is no longer in touch with either sibling. This begins the middle part of the novel, which is about what Rosemary learns in college. Although she takes pains never to sign up for a class in which she would have to learn anything about chimpanzees, at one point she begins responding to one of her professors with everything she knows about them, like that “empathy is… a natural human behavior, and natural to chimps as well. When we see someone hurt, our brains respond to some extent as if we’d been hurt ourselves. This response is not located in the amygdala, where emotional memories are stored, but also in those regions of the cortex responsible for analyzing the behavior of others. We access our own experiences with pain and extend them to the current sufferer. We’re nice that way.”

Rosemary also learns the limits of what she thinks of as normal human behavior, with the help of a new friend, Harlow, who has poor impulse control. At one point, when they’re in jail together, Rosemary manages to weary even Harlow, who asks her “Do you even know you’ve been talking all fucking night?” and Rosemary thinks “I hadn’t been talking so very much. If Harlow pushed me, I could show her what talking all fucking night really meant. I pictured how, if Fern had been here, she would have swung effortlessly up the wall, rained holy hell down on Harlow from above.”

In a few hours after meeting him, Harlow falls in love with the idea of Rosemary’s brother, who Rosemary hadn’t seen for ten years. Rosemary thinks “suddenly Harlow saw that what she’d always wanted was a man of principle. A man of action. A domestic terrorist. Every girl’s dream, if she can’t have a vampire.”

I love the way this novel is written, especially the sarcasm, the foreshadowing, and the references to other works of fiction. It is an extraordinary story, right down to the reason Rosemary’s mother finally gives her for how she has been raised, probably the main reason for what every mother does to her daughter: “I wanted you to have an extraordinary life.” In the end, though, Rosemary’s mother has to help her tell the story of what happened to her family because she is the only one of her three children who is “not currently in a cage.”

If I had read this book earlier in the year, I would be giving it to more of the people I know this Christmas.  It is that rare combination of well-written fiction with underlying didactic premise that I love so well.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. December 16, 2013 5:03 pm

    YAY. I am so, so pleased that you liked this. I would have asked for it for Christmas if I didn’t already have a copy which is the one I read and reviewed and it was so good. Isn’t it strange that the same woman wrote this and also The Jane Austen Book Club?

    • December 17, 2013 10:36 am

      Yes, I did think it was strange when I finished reading this book and realized she’d written The Jane Austen Book Club, which was pleasant enough but exceedingly lightweight. This is pretty heavyweight.

  2. December 17, 2013 10:15 am

    Ok, ok, I’ll put the book on my TBR list and try to figure out when I might be able to slip it into my reading pile. 🙂

    • December 17, 2013 10:36 am

      I’ll look forward to seeing what you think of it!

  3. December 17, 2013 12:07 pm

    I had to go and goggle Fowler to remind myself of what it was I’d read of hers and of course it was ‘The Jane Austen Book Club’. Not the best book in the world, but one I remember because of the way she wrote about dogs. If ever there was someone who knew about dogs it’s her. So, I’ve stopped off, half way through this post so that i won’t spoil the surprise and try and get to this sometime in the new year.

    • December 20, 2013 8:18 am

      She does seem to know about animals.
      As I get older, I am increasingly of the opinion that humans should not be able to buy and sell animals. There should be separate kinds of adoption procedures for “pets or meat,” and the procedure–even for animals we raise for meat–should spell out the obligation to provide appropriate food and shelter.
      Perhaps we’d argue too much about “appropriate,” but it’s like other issues today–we’re talking about profit vs suffering, so people on either side take extreme, polarized positions.

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