Karen Joy Fowler is the author of mega-bestseller The Jane Austen Book Club, but she has another life writing incredible science fiction short stories. With her new novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, she's brought her flair for witty character drama together with a tragic story about science. This novel will rip your heart out and electrify your brain.
Our protagonist Rosemary sets out to tell us the story of her strange childhood by "starting in the middle," with an incident in college where she's arrested for reasons she can't quite explain. A woman is fighting with her boyfriend in Rosemary's dorm, and starts smashing plates and throwing chairs in the dining hall. When the police arrive, Rosemary hurls a glass of milk on the floor, smashing it. Both women are arrested, and become fast frenemies.
Why did Rosemary decide to join in with the random acts of destruction in the dorm? And how will this one act change the way she sees her own life? That's the thread that unspools at the core of this novel, which is as much about the nature of memory as it is Rosemary's memories themselves. Even as we learn more about this troubled woman's past, Fowler never stops reminding us that memories can't always be trusted. We break through screen memories, only to discover memories so tattered by trauma that Rosemary can hardly trust their accuracy.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is about families, and the source of Rosemary's pain is what happened to her family when her parents decided to turn her life into a science experiment. Her father is a psychology professor who does primate studies, but he wants to take his research a step further. So he and Rosemary's mother adopt a baby chimp, Fern, and raise her as Rosemary's twin sister. Fowler has based this aspect of the story on several real-life cases in the 1970s where scientists reared chimps as humans — sometimes with other children, and sometimes not. The idea was to see whether chimps had the capacity to become human, or at least to learn how to communicate with humans.
What Rosemary's parents don't bargain for is what it will be like for Rosemary to have a twin sister who is a chimp. Like many twins, Rosemary assembles a sense of self partly by mirroring her sister. She grows up to be what she calls a "monkey-girl," a person who is never quite at ease among humans. Fern, for her part, learns sign language and human table manners. Neither is prepared for a world where everyone around them believes that the dividing line between human and chimp is bright and clearly drawn.
All the typical ambivalences of siblinghood — the rivalries and joys — are complicated by the fact that Rosemary's sister is, ultimately, a lab animal. Fowler manages to show us how horrific this situation is, while also reminding us slyly that what happens to Fern is completely within the range of what happens to many human children.
When a child is uncontrollable, or unable to fit into society, they are often institutionalized or sent to jail. In a sense, this is what happens to Fern. One might easily read Rosemary's situation as a metaphor for growing up as the twin of somebody who is developmentally disabled, or schizophrenic. Of course it's a lot more complicated than that, because Fern lives in a world where even the modicum of rights granted to the criminally insane are not granted to her. She is property. (Interestingly, Fowler notes at one point that this detail makes Fern more human rather than less, because so many girls are and have been chattel.)
As the human sister, the girl who is not property but is nevertheless an experiment, Rosemary has to live with both the loss of her sister and the guilt she bears for it. She also has to come to terms with her wrath at the way scientists like her father turn all living things into objects of study. Rosemary's parents exude a weirdly complementary blend of midwestern standoffishness and scientific remoteness. We are left with the sense that all families are research experiments — or, perhaps, that midwestern politeness is what gave rise to the myth of scientific objectivity.
Despite the fact that Rosemary and her family spend all their time suppressing their feelings, this is a novel whose emotional intensity is almost harrowing. It's a story about what it feels like to be an animal among humans, and what it means to accept that animals are human. Knowing that Fern is as much a person as Rosemary — and that Rosemary is as much an animal as Fern — turns the ethical quandry of animal rights into a story we can all recognize as nothing less than a tragic family melodrama. Fowler's genius here is her ability to remind us, sometimes with gentle wit and sometimes with searing intensity, that animal rights are on the same continuum as human rights.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is truly a narrative that unfolds at the boundary between species. Best of all, Fowler refuses to romanticize or demonize her protagonists. Everybody does things wrong, human and ape alike. This novel isn't afraid to look directly at the forces that rip families apart, as well as what it takes to reach a state of forgiveness; Fowler simply defines "family" broadly enough to include other hominids.
Though this novel doesn't fit the traditional definition of science fiction, it grapples with the implications of science in a way that few SF novels ever do. It also questions "humanness" by offering us a non-human perspective. Troubling, gorgeous, and thoughtful, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves will change the way you look at your fellow animals. You may not be happy with what you see, but you'll love the way Fowler invites you to do it.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves comes out May 30.