Something Happened. It's the title of one of my favorite-ever novels, by Joseph “Catch-22” Heller, and a book too often overlooked. It's a terrifically and purposefully and necessarily digressive work, not to mention a tragic mea culpa, but the two-word under-overstatement is simultaneously one of the best titles, jacket blurbs and plot summaries in one. It's also of course an invitation to memoir, mystery, history, storytelling. So it is with Karen Joy Fowler's newest novel, her sixth, titled as cleverly if longer, We are All Completely Beside Ourselves, another wry, jokey and perfect-idiom invitation to read what the heck happened, and how, toward understanding the meta-power of powerful storytelling, on top of the delicious story itself.
It's been a while since I read a book in a single day, in a couple of sittings reluctantly interrupted by what pass for urgent or required tasks. Fowler's newest insisted its way onto this eager fan of hers, with an excitement generated from both the terrific premise and a recollection (visceral, still) of similar books, at least in its whimsical-meets-sincere subversion and simultaneous gratification, most notably for me as remembered in the YA classic Bless the Beasts and the Children by Gelndon Swarthout. Fowler, who writes in all kinds of genres, but always smartly and invitingly, loves nature and science and social science, right up there with Atwood and Kingsolver, which is to say she is a reader-scholar as well as a deft arranger of character and plot and re-arranger of the familiar weird story you read about in the papers or hear on public radio…but always one step ahead of her audience in gratifying fulfillment of wishes. And like Atwood and Kingsolver she digs the process and the revelation, of history and literary precedent, and has done the research, teaching us or reminding us (frequently with jokes!), making us feel like experts, too, whether about Jane Austen in her smash novel The Jane Austen Book Club or in this novel, considering language acquisition, the human brain, primate psychology, animal liberation, memory and more.
Yes, the self-conscious narrative offered by our narrator – “Bookmark that thought,” indeed – who turns out to be (no surprise) a writer and teacher herself, reminded me how much I love the conceit of, well, conceit. How else to write a story of somebody whose life-story requires explaining, demands the “real story,” an unwilling public figure (think the kidnapped child, the missing hiker, the adult revealing Asberger's) with an irresistible and nearly unbelievable tale – here of the famous American “monkey girl” from Indiana – except to have her front and center, offering, considering, picking and choosing her first-person insider account, middle, beginning, end and in-between?
Yet Fowler's strategic withholding is absolutely NOT a trick or device, but the purposeful, existential requirement of the topic.
I'm getting ahead of myself. Sorry. Raised in the weird environs of home and university by a father, mother, brother and grad students in an experiment, a family-laboratory suggesting every kind of self-conscious honesty-making and embarrassment, the novel immediately evokes a pleasingly familiar phenomenon. Studying ourselves, each other, looking for each Other in ourselves. This is the fascination of the Michael Apted “Up” series and the public television Loud family. Add Jane Goodall and Diane Fossy, and it's Fowler's fictional Cooke family, based on the real-life Kellogs, another chimp-raising bunch.
“There's science and then there's science…When humans are the subjects, it's mostly not science.” So observes (lots of “observation” in her life, 'natch) our Rosemary Cooke. She is a young woman in the long “middle” of her story, attending UC Davis, in probably the first work of fiction set in that unlikely locale. For a reason, of course: veterinary college, scientific research on animals, including primates. Family medicine for the whole big family of monkeys, chimps, orangutans, homo sapiens' brothers and sisters.
So that this is a novel of ideas, but all of it organized around a family story, if naturally challenging the notion of family. Because Rosemary was raised with a primate in one of those wacky if charming-sounding real-life experiments from the 1970s, with a chimp “sister” who is ostensibly the subject of the research. But it turns out the experiment is more about the human girl than her smart, loving, hairy sibling. It turns out that maybe the experiment is on the whole family of man, on how we acquire language in particular. How we communicate, tell stories. You saw that coming. You, like me, are eager for it.
But there are too many variables, too much perspective for our one little girl raised with the responsibility of being our human stand-in for the brutality, hegemony, feeble reconciliation with our animal relations, bunnies to lab rats to bonobos. Drunken psycho-linguist father, unhappy mother, angry brother. They are all wonderful, charmed, flawed. They should all know better. But they want to know! Better! For our Rosemary, there's predictable (to everyone but her, and her family) confusion about who is the subject of this life. The details of any experiment, the results, change as we know, when you are in it. When you are it, even more so.
Beyond the fast-paced and exciting re-creation of that experimental part of Rosemary's story there's of course the Big Implications, affirmed in Fowler's homage to Franz Kafka's classic short story “A Report for the Academy,” about the transformation of ape to human. Yes, Fowler likes ideas, and never misses a chance to allude, to evoke. Madame Defarge from Dickens shows up in one of the cleverest images you can find anywhere, and the chance to show off Rosemary's own language acquisition is one of the most satisfying through-lines of the story. And through-lines, echoes, associations? Lots of 'em. Politics, sociology, popular culture tropes furnish the autobiographical idiom of a girl-woman and her chimp in always-pleasing serendipity. And humor, yes, on every page. Fowler's easy throw-away wise-acrey is the envy of any normal person,and her high-concept irony is killer. From the big, sad joke of the family pet “sent to live on a farm” to the “monkey on my back” to literary references that call attention to the smarts of both the author and the narrator: “When a portent repeats itself three times, like something out of Julius Caesar, even Caliban, a couple of plays over, is bound to notice.” Ha!
The slow-learning, confused, heartbroken autodidact is redeemed, in revelation and pain and, finally, growing up , as we all must. Rosemary is one of the winningest characters you will meet, along with her brother the – no big reveal here, no “spoiler” – animal rights activist. Which brings me to another important book which Fowler must certainly have been thinking about, responding to, one which meant a lot to me and should to all of us upright walkers: Steven Wise's Rattling the Cage: Toward Legal Rights for Animals. It is meant, as Fowler's novel, to change radically the way we see, speak, feel, think. Mostly speak, and listen, and repeat, as Fowler insists early:
“Language does this to our memories – simplifies, solidifies, codifies, mummifies. And oft-told story is like a photograph in a family album; eventually, it replaces the moment it was meant to capture.”
Young Rosemary stops talking, then can't stop talking. The urgency of her self-discovery, of both embracing and escaping the experiment in which we all find ourselves in our ways, made me read this book, finally, too fast. I look forward to rereading, and I apologize for not elaborating on an elegant and entertaining and essential work of fiction whose elaborations make each section of it a layering-on of complex pleasure. With jokes and brains!
No, there are too many big ideas, too much of everything satisfying, happily, in We are All Completely Beside Ourselves to even get close to giving anything away. I trust I have offered just enough to sell you on this too-fun and energetic novel by a writer whose combining of just about every form will please every kind of reader.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler, G.P. Putnam's, 310 pgs., $$26.95
Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.