“Empathy Is Also A Natural Human Behaviour”: Karen Joy Fowler’s “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves”

wearellcompletelyI read Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves a few weeks before it was longlisted for this Booker Prize; I confess I didn’t think it had much chance of being shortlisted, and said as much to the nice man behind the desk at my local Waterstones who told me he’d drawn the book in the work sweepstake; and yet there it is, shortlisted. Perhaps as a function of my generally underwhelmed feeling about the book, I didn’t review it at the time. But I did make a note in my reading diary and here, gasp, it is:

An odd novel: it has an effectively turned central twist, and a compelling series of secondary reveals, and yet is never quite as dramatic or as gripping as its structure might wish itself to be. Perhaps this is because the narrative feels over-determined, a fictionalised account of real experiments which can’t quite escape the dragging weight of the points it strives to make with more clarity than the original investigations themselves. Perhaps appropriately in this context, all of the characters behave like rats in a cage – but that doesn’t help the vitality of the narrative, either. Effective, but never quite evocative.

Let me try to unpack that. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is the story of Rosemary and the family in which she grows up, in particular her two siblings, sister Fern and brother Lowell. It is about the way in which the children relate to their parents, a distant father and a besotted mother, who in turn seem to have a difficult relationship themselves. Much of this is communicated via Rosemary’s acute powers of observation – inherited, perhaps, from her scientist father, who conducts work in behavioural science from his tenured position at the local university. Much of these observations are filtered through a flashback, Rosemary rather clumsily reconstructing her life following a series of episodes at her own college which lead her to re-examine several childhood traumas.

This process of unravelling gives the novel its bite, its turn: at first it’s rather unclear what’s eating at Rosemary, although it’s obvious that something is rotten. Not a little of this uncertainty comes from the narrator’s own ambivalence: “I honestly don’t know anymore if I really remember it or only remember how to tell it,” she muses, and this characteristic of hers hangs over her story [p. 48]. Each player has their own perspective, their own version of the truth. This is a novel about experiments and experimenters, about how we perceive and observe; it is about confirmation bias. This is an interesting twist on what is now the reliably unreliable literary narrator, but the motif of the experiment becomes more than just a structural gambit. It becomes a stylistic strait-jacket.

There is, perhaps, a kink amongst this year’s Booker judges for the twist, so for the third time allow me to ruin your fun for you: Rosemary’s sister, Fern, is a chimpanzee, an asset of the university laboratory that her father brings home in order to see how raising a chimp as a suburban human child may or may not affect the animal and its adopted siblings. This is not so very far-fetched – in the interpretative apparatus plonked at the end of the novel, Fowler makes much of Project Nim, for example – but in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves the experiment, necessarily and forgivably for fiction, takes on a metaphoric weight. Rosemary’s sister does develop a sort of language, a kind of human understanding; but at the same time she becomes aggressive and violent, and though Rosemary blames herself for the attack on her which leads to Fern’s return to the research lab, I’m not sure the novel does much to convince us that it wasn’t the only – if not the right – thing to be done.

Nevertheless, this return to the lab forms the broiling centre of the psychodramas which power the novel: at college, Rosemary falls in with the curiously ape-like energy of a fellow student, and winds up in hot water as a result; her brother, who has long since lost touch with the family, is eventually revealed to be a wanted man, an Animal Liberation Front militant; and, of course, her mother’s relationship with her father – and the entire family’s relationships with each other – are forever bent out of shape by the simple act of bestowing a revocable humanity upon an animal. “Fern was gone,” sighs Rosemary. “Her disappearance represented many things – confusions, insecurities, betrayals, a Gordian knot of interpersonal complications.” [pg. 111]

You’ll note the oddly cool summation of familial bonds that the phrase “interpersonal complications” conjures. Again, I’d argue, the experiment motif troubles a novel that wants also to be a keenly-felt family saga. I am, however, not entirely in the majority on this topic of the novel’s coldness. Here’s the doughty Ian Mond: “it’s that sort of book, one that triggers profound, slightly frightening emotions, the sort that are never easy to confront.  Complicated and conflicted but so beautifully written, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a novel that might be difficult to review but is well worth reading.” Mond thinks this novel should win the Booker Prize; he was deeply affected by the novel, and found it not at all lacking in emotion. On one level, I admit, I’m with him. Here’s what happens when Rosemary’s brother, Lowell, gains access to the lab where Fern is being held:

She was in a cage with four large adults. I don’t think I’d ever realized how different one chimp looks from another. Her hair was redder than most, and her ears were set higher, more like teddy bear ears. […] I was walking across the basement towards the cages and she hadn’t even turned in my direction when I saw her go rigid. […] I ran toward her and when I got close enough she reached through, grabbed my arm, and pulled me so hard she slammed me into the bars. […] By now, she’d gotten the other chimps pretty worked up. Another one, a big male and fully erect, came and tried to make my hand from her, but she wouldn’t let go. So he grabbed my other arm, and then they were both pulling on me, and between them they bounced me repeatedly against the bars. […] The big chimp came crashing from behind and Fern couldn’t defend herself and hold on to me at the same time. So she didn’t defend herself. He opened these long, bloody wounds on her back with his feet.” [pp. 206-8]

This whole passage is truly horrible to read. First, we see Fern’s distinctness, her simultaneous chimpanzeeness and her individuality, that spark which, attuned to her as Lowell is, he can see and which, once seen, makes it impossible to refer to her as ‘just a chimp’. But then, too, of course, there is the “something inside Fern I didn’t know” which Rosemary calls “secrets and not the good kind” [pg. 270] – her indisputable animal quality, that which does separate her from Lowell. And then, obviously, there is the horror of the cage: the impossibility of escape, the close quarters that warp behaviour, the submissiveness. Just as Fowler has a way throughout with the one-liner – “Parents are too innocent for the Boschian landscapes of middle school” [pg. 120] – so, too, in bursts like this does she reveal a powerful capacity to make the reader feel.

But, I think, Ian also in his review glances at the novel’s macro-level problem: that the characters don’t quite act as they might. He spends much of his reading furious at Rosemary’s parents for not considering the consequences of bringing Fern into their home; only late in the novel does her mother say they had considered a chimp for many years, being cautious about making the final decision, until Fern arrived, “so little and so alone in the world”, and they had to help. That’s fine, and it certainly adds some much-needed weight to the parents’ story; but that the novel treats all its reveals,a ll its episodes, in this way – as datapoints that the investigation of reading the novel must reveal and rearrange – is one reason that, for me, all of its actors felt – ho, ho – like rats in a cage. That’s thematically appropriate, of course, but it didn’t help me feel.

That’s a shame, because the novel’s central conflict is between solipsism on the one hand – “that you can only be certain of your own status as a conscious being” [pg. 133] – and empathy on the other – “we constantly infer someone else’s intentions, thoughts, knowledge, lack of knowledge, doubts, desires, beliefs, guesses, promises, preferences, purposes, and many, many more things in order to behave as social creatures in the world” [pg. 187]. The middle way between these two poles, perhaps, is sympathy – accepting that Fern is different, but also respecting what separates one from the other. Fern is damaged by the attempt to make her a human (“Growing up with us fucked with her sexually, though,” says Lowell; “she’s not interested” [pg. 215]); Lowell might preach, but Fowler doesn’t. In that refusal to give up the parents’ psychology until the last, however, the novel’s governing motif routinely keeps us always at one remove from the action, denying not just empathy but even that more distanced sympathy. We observe, but we only understand at the junctures and in the ways which the novel – its experiment – allows.

In one sense, then, I’m saying that We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a completely imagined, and faithfully executed, book; it is consistent and clever, intelligent and incisive. I am also saying, however, that it is perhaps a little too much so, that it seems, to this reader at least, to lack life. I would recommend you read it; I would not vote for it to win the Prize – but perhaps, if there are more Ian Monds than Dan Hartlands on that judging panel, my local Waterstones bookseller may yet prevail.

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