[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
“…I would see his hand on the doorknob, the door beginning to swing shut. I have something to say! I’d tell him, and the door would stop part way.
“Start in the middle, then, he’d answer, a shadow with the hall light behind him, and tired in the evenings the way grownups are. The light would reflect in my bedroom window like a star you could wish on.
“Skip the beginning. Start in the middle.”
As frustrating as it is, I am going to try to discuss Karen Joy Fowler’s Nebula-nominated novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves without stating the plot point upon which the book revolves. This will make for a weaker review in my opinion, but I don’t want to rob the half-dozen or so people who haven’t read other reviews (like the New York Times review, where Barbara Kingsolver spilled the beans in the second paragraph,) of the pleasure of having this book unfold the way the writer intended.
Fowler’s book is a story about an American family, maybe a uniquely American family, because maybe this could only happen in America. It is about a scientific experiment and the results of that experiment. It is not a horror story, although there are horrific moments. This is pure science fiction; the exploration of a scientist’s attempt to communicate with and understand a non-human species, and the consequences of that attempt.
As suggested in the quote, our first-person narrator, Rosemary Cooke, begins her story in the middle, in 1996. She is a college student at UC Davis. She begins the story there, but it soon emerges that she is writing it, or telling it, in 2012.
College-student Rosemary is a strange person, a little quiet, not terribly popular. She doesn’t quite fit in. One fall day she is sitting in the cafeteria having lunch when another student has an argument with her boyfriend; an argument that soon escalates to a tantrum of Shakespearean proportions. Campus police are called and arrest the other student, named Harlow, and they arrest Rosemary as well. Rosemary is forced to call her parents in the Midwest for help. Even though she is quickly released and the charges dropped, Rosemary has agreed to the unthinkable in her one phone call — to go home for the Thanksgiving holiday. We soon learn that although Rosemary grew up with a brother and sister, she is now, functionally, an only child. Her brother Lowell ran away as a teenager, but what happened to her sister, Fern, is more mysterious, more ominous, and has warped the Cooke family in various ways ever since. At the end of the weekend, Rosemary’s mother asks her to take home a stack of journals, and read them with an eye to publication. Rosemary does not want to do this, but she can’t see a way to refuse.
It’s plain that the journals are important and that Rosemary is conflicted. The first half of the book, Rosemary’s first year at college, is comedic, almost slapstick. Rosemary’s luggage gets lost on the flight back to school. She enters her off-campus room to discover that Harlow has basically moved in. A suitcase is delivered. It’s the wrong suitcase. When Harlow breaks into it, it doesn’t have the journals, but rather a ventriloquist’s dummy that Harlow appropriates. Underneath the madcap events, though, is a note of pain and one of desperation. Rosemary meditates on the chasm in her childhood, the one that divides the happy, earlier days with Lowell and Fern from the period after Fern’s disappearance.
Then Lowell shows up in Davis, wanting to talk to Rosemary. Lowell is an animal rights activist, someone who is close to breaking the law if he hasn’t already. Seeing him again, Rosemary is reminded that Lowell always blamed her for Fern’s disappearance.
Rosemary’s desperate talking, her little-girl goal to learn a new word every day, her inadequate socialization, are direct reactions to her sister Fern. Lowell’s running away is a direct result of what happened to Fern. Within a few months, in 1979, the Cooke family lost two children, and really, it can be argued that they lost all three, because Rosemary in the first half of the book is pretty lost herself.
Why is this science fiction? Because Fern was the subject of an experiment. What the Cookes do not realize until much, much later is that they are subjects in that same experiment themselves.
Fowler reveals this is the middle of the book, when Rosemary finally has to tell us “the beginning” of the story. She captures perfectly the optimistic, sunny and naïve aspects of this time of scientific exploration; the 1970s. Humans are slightly famous for paying attention to the short term, and not considering the long term, and the Cooke family experiment exemplifies that. Fern disappears when Rosemary is five years old; Rosemary unjustly carries the guilt for that disappearance, as well as the grief and loss for her sister, well into her twenties. Lowell tells her that he found Fern, alive, and what had been done to her was horrific.
“A man at the other table accused his breakfast partner of pulling rainbows and unicorns out of her ass. I don’t know if it was exactly this moment when I overheard that, but I’ve always remembered it. Such as painful image, so exactly what Lowell wasn’t doing. So exactly what Lowell never did. So when Lowell told me that everything had gotten better for Fern when Uljevik retired, I knew it was the truth.”
Rosemary and Lowell each chose different ways to deal with the disappearance of their sister. Lowell, a fighter, is arrested at the end of the book. Rosemary, who became quiet at the age of five (not silent, merely quiet) must speak out. As Rosemary says:
“I’ve spent most of my life carefully not talking about Fern and Lowell and me. It has taken some practice to be fluent in that. Think of everything I’ve said here as practice. Because what this family needs now is a great talker.”
The title of the book, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, seems like an odd one. Many of us are familiar with this regional expression for being excited or agitated. In this book it has a deeper meaning, about the people who are next to us; or, in some cases, the faces we see in the mirror. Fowler raises serious questions about how humans treat other animals. She acknowledges that these issues aren’t simple ones. She addresses loss, and the silence that so often accompanies it; sibling rivalry and sibling love.
I’ve made We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves sound sad, and it often is, but it is gripping, too, and Fowler invests Rosemary with witty observations about modern-day life that sparkle, like this one, where Rosemary remembers hearing talk radio back in 1979:
“… Then a caller who wanted to talk about a professor who was making his whole class read Dracula, even the Christians who thought it imperiled their souls. (Let’s just pause here for a moment to imagine how a person who felt imposed on by vampires back in 1979 feels today. And then, right back to my story.)”
I thought there was a bit of a gap between Rosemary’s 1996 story and the book’s present, and I felt that I needed to make a lot of assumptions to see how we ended up where we did. Still, where we do end up is realistic, not Pollyanna-ish (no unicorns and rainbows here) yet hopeful. We are growing as a species. We can, and do, learn from our mistakes.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is not anti-science. Fowler does not question the “what;” in a way, with the deep meditations on language, she celebrates it. She critiques the “how,” and that is something that deserves a critique.
Rosemary and her sister Fern will stay with you after you close this book. It will make you think differently about everyday life. I think Fowler accomplished exactly what she set out to do; through the eyes, mind and heart of an “ordinary” girl in an ordinary family, make us question the things we take for granted.