We are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Karen Joy Fowler.

Fowler, Karen Joy. We are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Penguin, New York, 2013. Hachette digital retrieved for Kindle.

This interesting book was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2014. I found it charming and original although I also sensed a subtle but definite letdown in momentum halfway through. This is something I encounter from time to time which always makes me wonder whether an editor forced the author to pad, for length. Who knows. The writing also had a strangely familiar colloquial tone I associate with certain clever feminists. Overall I enjoyed it and think it’s worth the trouble.

PLOT ALERT (there are a couple of important plot twists, one of them near the start, so if you haven’t read it don’t read this and the next paragraph) Little Rosemary grows up in an unusual but historically existent household where as well as her older brother, there is a sister who is young girl chimpanzee. This is part of an experiment conducted by her psychologist father assisted by graduate students who form part of the household. The monkey-sister who goes by the name of Fern is sent away by the parents after Rosemary divulges that Fern has killed a kitten. Brother Lowell discovers, when he’s in high school, what his parents have done, runs away and tries to liberate the chimpanzee from the laboratory where she is caged, and becomes an animal rights fugitive.

He reconnects with Rosemary when she’s at university, and gets involved with her beautiful crazy friend who feels like a substitute Fern. There’s a bunch of university hijinks, alcohol, brushes with the cops, eccentric landlord, boyfriends etc. And then Rosemary grows up and becomes a teacher END PLOT ALERT.

Major plot twists drop out of the blue with none of the telegraphy common in TV and fiction, and those surprises tend to expand the significance of the events. Animal rights advocacy (which I find silly in some contexts) would feel quite moving and sentimental to any reader of this book who’s had pets or who has reflected on animals’ innocence and personalities.

I was struck by a particular smarty-style of the author, which is kind of charming but which I find a little arch:

Say goodbye to (shallow selfish university roommate) Scully. We won’t be seeing her again until 2010…

It’s a double-irony vernacular, I think sarcastically aping people who find it attractive to act like they’re talking to a child. I’m ambivalent about this tone, part of me finding it clever and sometimes funny, another part reacting to it with the tired annoyance I feel with that awful dated rubbish referred to as uptalk.

Right after brother Lowell’s departure, coherence seems to me to wander a bit. I see this in plot expectation and a bit of failure of common sense. Why doesn’t Rosemary tell the police to let her go if she isn’t under arrest?, for example. At the same time there is just a suggestion of frank animal rights advocacy which I think is inadvertent on the part of the author and which spoils some of the lovely human-animal philosophy and emotional connection that’s part of the book’s strength.

This book is far from vacuous ideologically and we have to consider responsibility, jealousy, violence, family relationships, and what animals really are including whether we could or should connect with their inner lives. Fowler feeds some of this to us through university course content and simply narrating research findings of various kinds. Ideally I guess that kind of important abstract idea should dawn on us through character and plot, but accomplishing that is, I find, confined to the very greatest writers. And I think this author is very good indeed. Clever, honest, subtle, thoughtful, and entertaining.

Animals are lucky. A lot of our human stress and unhappiness comes from knowing that we are going to die, and I don’t think that occurs to animals in the same way. But we have the advantage of having used our smarts to make our world safer and much more comfortable, and laying aside for a moment sentimental appreciation of animals’ beauty and innocence, we can appreciate that they live their lives in a relentless struggle for survival. They pay, I guess seeing it teleologically, for their gorgeous ignorance of mortality by having to live a life obsessed with food, killing and being killed, and seasonal and, I’m sure for females, mostly unwelcome mating that amounts to rape.

I finished this book a bit disappointed that its plot just petered out, but also with admiration for this writer’s skill and cleverness and a bit better grasp of and feeling for all the strange living creatures we share the earth with. 6.8/8.3

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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