Language is such an imprecise vehicle I sometimes wonder why we bother with it.
( p.85, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves)
Karen Jay Fowler’s award-winning novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves , is about the Cooke family. It consists of the parents who are research psychologists and their three children — Lowell, Rosemary and Fern. A normal family except for a minor difference, Fern is a chimpanzee who has been brought up with Rosemary from infancy as twins. It is an experiment the parents conduct, funded by their university and it entailed having a “village” of grad students living with them at home to help. For the first five years of the girls lives, all is well. Then Rosemary is sent off to her grandparents, when she returns she discovers her sister is nowhere to be seen, her parents have moved into a new home, with no extra bedrooms and no grad students. Her brother too vanishes only to send postcards periodically and one brief visit, many years later. Rosemary begins telling this story when she is a college student and completes it when she is a kindergarten teacher for some years. The story spans over thirty years. As the narrator, Rosemary Cooke, says:
My brother and my sister have led extraordinary lives, but I wasn’t there, and I can’t tell you that part. I’ve stuck here to the part I can tell, the part that’s mine, and still everything I’ve said is all about them, a chalk outline around the space where they should have been. Three children, one story. (p. 304)
It is not surprising to discover that this novel has been shortlisted for the ManBooker Prize 2014. The story is a sensitive understanding of sibling relationships, loneliness of a woman and the ethics of scientific experiments–anthropomorphize a chimp and what are the human complications/repercussions of conducting such an experiment. This is a story based primarily on Winthrop Kellogg’s work at Indiana University, but also of many others; most notably Jane Goodall’s work with the Gombe chimpanzees. In an interview with the Book Slut ( Oct 2013), the author says “I did hear from a daughter in the Kellogg family, I didn’t realize that there was another child. She was born about the time the experiment ended, so she has no memory of it herself, nor would her brother, who was only nineteen months old when the experiment ended. But she feels strongly that it completely deformed her family, that experiment that was so much briefer than the one I put in my book. She emailed me and said she realized I must have based this on her father’s work. One of the things she said that had happened to them, something I did not think about in my book and did not anticipate, was that they got hate mail and death threats from fundamentalists. …She wished to tell me how horrible it was to be part of the experiment, and what it did to her brother, what it did to her family. Although it’s not clear to me — to go back to my daughter’s original question — whether the damage to the family was done by the experiment itself or by having the kind of father who would do an experiment like this and who, therefore, was the kind of father who did other things as well; clearly, not a great father. It was a shock too, because I knew that the boy, Donald, who was involved in the experiment, had died quite some time ago. And I did not know there was another child. So I wrote about this family and it did not occur to me that any of them would be reading it.”
Karen Jay Fowler also refers to Keith and Catherine Hayes experiment at raising Viki ( a chimp) in the same manner as a human infant. “…Mr. Hayes said that the significant, the critical finding of their study, the finding everyone was choosing to ignore, was this: that language was the only way in which Viki differed much from a normal human child.” ( p.288) Karen Jay Fowler is known for her science fiction writing, her strong sense of storytelling. She has brought to the fore in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by telling an extraordinarily beautiful story, but also making one think ( as good scifi should do!) about experiments conducted on animals in the name of research and what does it mean for animal rights. Coincidentally, the August 2014 issue of the National Geographic has an essay where Jane Goodall celebrating her 80th year reflects on her career of getting to know unforgettable chimps. ( http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2014/08/gombe-chimpanzees/shah-rogers-photography ).
Read this book. Just as all good science fiction blurs the lines between reality and experimentation and continue to be influential such as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics, so will We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves — it will dominate conversations about literature, science, animal rights, literary fiction for many years to come.
An interview with Karen Jay Fowler, Book Slut, October 2013 ( http://www.bookslut.com/features/2013_10_020334.php )
Is your process for writing a novel dramatically different from writing a short story?
Yes, it is dramatically different. When I write a story I can keep the whole thing in my head. I usually pop backward from the climax so I know what I want the climax to be, how I want it to work, what I want the effect on the reader to be. It’s just a much more conscious kind of creation where I’m very aware of the reader, I’m very aware of what I think the readers experience is going to be and try to make it what I want. And then, of course, readers are obstreperous and go and have all kinds of experience that I did not intend, but I like that too.
With novels, I’m much more muddled, muddling my way through them. What I do like about novels is being able to spend that extended period of time with the characters. I get to know those characters in a much more deep and attached way. I’ve never missed one of the characters of my short stories when I finished the short story — I wish I were still thinking about her, I wish I were still making her up. But I do have that experience with a novel. I am very sad to say goodbye to Rosemary and Fern. I liked them both a lot.
In conversation with Karen Jay Fowler, The American Reader ( http://theamericanreader.com/an-interview-with-karen-joy-fowler/ )
Carmen Maria Machado: Your fiction tends to move between (for lack of a better word) genres. What do you find so compelling about the borderlands between fantasy, realism, historical fiction, and science fiction?
Karen Joy Fowler: I think I like places where the rules are still visible, but need not apply. I get a lot of energy from having conventions I can push against.
And I’ve long felt that reality is so strange that realism really isn’t up to the task of adequately presenting it. The world is a whole lot more horrible than I imagined as a child. But it is also considerably funnier. I try to make do with that.
I always say that I write history as it might have been reported in the National Enquirer. And I guess I’m more interested in the fact that someone believes he’s been abducted by aliens than I am in exploring actual alien plots and connivings. An interest in the abductees as opposed to the aliens seems to me to be a borderland concern.
Karen Jay Fowler We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves Serpent’s Tail, London, 2014. ( Distributed in India by Hachette India.) Pb. pp. 340. Rs. 499