We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

[This is a journal in three sections, covering two Parts per section. I didn’t start reading a new section until I’d finished writing about the one before, so I didn’t know how any of it would turn out until I got to the end.]

15 January 2015
Parts 1 and 2
Karen Joy Fowler knows what she’s doing. She’s got everything in here, from the usual family dysfunctions, the usual anxiety about who is a success and who is the loser, the charismatic interloper disturbing the previously unruffled surface of the life the main character has done her best to construct. So far, I thought at the end of Part 1, so Jonathan Franzen. And then Fowler drops in such a new and unexpected element we’re suddenly somewhere else entirely. She’s had Rosemary, her narrator, make so many references to the unreliability of her own memory that I assumed it would be the main thing. But the information we get on page 77 shows us that it isn’t only memory that makes selections. Rosemary has chosen, until now, to omit the fact that the sister she had grown up with until the age of five, the one who has so mysteriously disappeared, is a chimpanzee.

Is this a really clever narrative coup, or a gimmick? I’m going with the former for now. Fowler has made it consistent with the personality of her narrator who, as we have already come to realise before the revelation, is highly self-conscious about the way she tells stories. She has been made so by – by what? We don’t know at first, only that her father, exasperated with her talkativeness as a child, has always recommended starting ‘in the middle’. This comes in the Prologue, and is Rosemary’s (and Fowler’s) excuse for a game that is still being played out by the end of Part 2. Chapter 1 of Part 1 begins ‘in the middle’, when she was a 22-year-old college student. But that won’t do. So she back-tracks to when her childhood was disrupted when she had to spend three mind-numbingly dull weeks with her grandparents. But that won’t do either, as she teasingly lets us know that there was a specific reason for her temporary exile. Was her mother having a baby? No. A breakdown? Yes – but that is definitely not the whole story, which is to do with the sister who’s been mentioned several times. And it’s half-way through Part 2 that we come to realise why Rosemary thinks of her childhood as the time before and the time after this event. Fern, her sister, has been taken away – but it only now emerges that Fern is a chimpanzee, raised in the family as part of an experiment.

Good to have sorted that out. But even now, at the end of Part 2, the narrative games are far from over. Rosemary has got as far as narrating how difficult it is for her when she is finally sent to kindergarten. Her behaviour is very different from that of the other children, as the only long-term contact she has ever had is with a chimp. Her parents tell her beforehand what she will not be able to do – no touching, no climbing on the furniture – but the warnings are no good. What the other children perceive is difference, and Fowler has Rosemary helpfully explain how this works. It’s the ‘uncanny valley’ phenomenon, which comes about when there’s something strange about a child raised differently that nobody can quite put their finger on. Immediately, to the other children, she’s monkey-girl. And she has to learn to interact with kids who seem as alien to her as she does to them.

But there’s another time-line, the one relating to her 22-year-old self. Following the attention-grabbing opening scene – another narrative game, on Fowler’s part as much as her narrator’s – we only very occasionally return to it. But we do know that Rosemary is now very different from her five-year-old self, no longer the child who did all the talking for two and then some. Now she keeps her head down, as far from her home town as she can get – until something happens to undermine all that. Harlow, the drama-queen whose behaviour temporarily makes Rosemary behave so out of character it seems highly implausible at first, is not going away. And, as Rosemary has carefully reminded us several times, this part of her memoir is ‘in the middle’. Once (I think it’s only once) she has mentioned that she is writing this in 2012, sixteen years after she first encounters Harlow. She has also mentioned – once, in passing – that Fern is still alive. We also happen to know (from the first line of the Prologue) that at the time of writing, Rosemary has never returned to her garrulous ways. So what’s going on?

I need to read on, but there are more details to fill in first. This from the opening paragraph of Chapter 1, when she is 22: ‘In 1996, ten years had passed since I’d last seen my brother, seventeen since my sister disappeared.’ As so often, this bland sentence hides more than it reveals. 100 pages later we still don’t know the circumstances of her brother Lowell’s disappearance, although even by the age of eleven he stays away from home as much as he can. There’s a psychologist father, a mother who is still at home when Rosemary goes to kindergarten, and two very different sets of grandparents. Nothing of this is revealed in a straightforward way. We find out about the father’s pedantic manner and odd way of talking to his children long before we hear that he is a psychologist. And long before we understand why, we hear that the farmhouse they live in until Fern’s removal – as big a part of Rosemary’s image of her first five years as the presence of Fern – had a room for graduate students. And so on.

What we are beginning to piece together by the time Rosemary is off to Kindergarten is that the experiment with Fern has been highly problematic. We know that we’ve only heard the beginning of her troubles at school, because she still feels the need to escape twelve years later when she travels to an out-of-state university at great expense to her parents. It’s becoming clear, but only by implication, that they are so willing to let this happen because they understand something of the trauma she’s suffered. Fern was a real sister to her, a key part of her sense of herself until the age of five, and she was never properly told why she was suddenly not there. The reader doesn’t know either yet, although it’s connected in some way with the breakdown that takes her mother many months to emerge from. We don’t know if there’s to be a relapse, but Rosemary tells us that the rest of the family can’t help but watch out.

And there’s the other time-line. In retrospect it feels like a trick learnt on a writing course: grab the reader, then drop tantalising little hints from time to time. Harlow is melodramatically breaking up with her boyfriend, and breaking up the furniture, in the canteen where Rosemary, mouse-like, is having her lunch. A crisis is reached when a campus cop arrives, and Rosemary smashes her own glass to the floor as an inexplicable part of her response. They are both arrested, and the injustice of this sustains our interest. By the end of Chapter 2 all charges are dropped, but Fowler has got us where she wants us by then, and the story of Rosemary’s childhood can begin. We meet Harlow a couple more times, once when she takes up residence for a few days in Rosemary’s apartment over Thanksgiving, and again when we get one of several stories within stories. Harlow has cajoled Rosemary into going for a drink, and Rosemary tells her ‘go-to’ story of childhood. It’s the one about her three weeks of boredom at her grandparents but, inevitably, without the key facts concerning Fern. And one last thing in the 1996 thread: the apartment manager tells Rosemary that her brother has turned up and might call again. She didn’t see that one coming. And it’s reminded me of another problematic aspect of their post-Fern childhoods. Lowell makes friends with the much older boy on their new street, and he drives them, illegally, to their old place. Rosemary thinks Fern will still be there – we don’t know at this point that Fern is not her human sister – but all the older boy had wanted was access to the place for a party, and only Rosemary could wriggle in through the dog-door. It doesn’t improve Lowell’s relationship with his parents. He had loved Fern the most, or so Rosemary tells us, slept away from home for two nights when she was taken away, and sees a counsellor for some time after.

So the unreliability of memory and the selective ways we choose to tell our stories are present from the start. I’m guessing that they will have a lot to contribute to Rosemary’s construction of her own adult identity. But we don’t know anything about that yet because, of course, she’s only dropped the tiniest of hints.

18 January
Parts 3 and 4
Fowler is a clever writer. Through the unsettled, dilettante mind of the constantly questioning Rosemary – we get to know her 22-year-old self far better in these middle sections – Fowler is able to dip into plenty of different fields of study. If you can call it study when Rosemary is concerned. The research that must have gone into this novel never seems forced, because what Rosemary tells us is just the kind of thing you’d expect from somebody who has lost part of herself and has been trying to understand what she’s lost ever since. She knows all about the chimpanzees who were fostered in human families – there are paragraphs describing the lives of eight or ten real ones at the beginning of Part 4 – which is exactly what she would have researched, avidly. There’s anthropology of the people-watching kind, blending seamlessly with what she is constantly telling us about chimpanzee behaviour. Ok, I find some of the narrative twists a little too convenient – at one point Rosemary, almost apologetically, lists the crises in her life that have all come at once – but I’m ok with it because it’s enjoyable.

Before resuming the timeline of Rosemary’s 22-year-old self, Fowler has her scamper through sixteen years of childhood and the rest of her growing up. (She’s arrived at university by Chapter 5 of Part 3.) She only slowly comes to realise that her lovable garrulousness gets on everybody’s nerves, although by the time she reaches high school – there’s a horrible account of the routine bullying she gets there from day one, although soon her schoolmates move on to even weirder kids – she has learnt the art of saying very little indeed. Fowler is clearly interested in how hard it is for all of us, not just chimps and monkey-girls, to learn how to read social signals. Harlow presents a whole new assortment of difficulties when the time comes, but I don’t want to jump the gun….

The second trauma of Rosemary’s childhood comes when her brother leaves. This is Rosemary’s narrative, and we only get her version of it, but she’s by now beginning to put some of the empathy she’s learnt from her time with Fern. (Rosemary never says this outright, but she says enough about the day-by-day intimacy of their shared childhood for us to piece it together.) She really does understand what the psychologists in charge of these experiments don’t: that the removal of a chimpanzee is like the disappearance of any other family member. There’s the same confusion, the same self-deluding fantasies – which the family know to be self-deluding – about the good life she must be living away from them. And, as with a death in the family, there’s a sense of bereavement and a long period of grieving. There isn’t a single family member unaffected – we’ve seen the effect on the mother – but Lowell, as Rosemary has told us even before we know that Fern is not their biological sister, is the one who loved her best. And although he pretends to get over it, he never really does.

Why am I telling you all this? Or, to put it a different way, why does Fowler move the focus away from the narrator’s trauma and on to his? [Pause] Lots of reason, I suppose. To show that it isn’t only the narrator’s over-sensitivity that makes the removal of Fern seem such a big deal. To show the way that a family can be ripped from top to bottom by something that seems trivial to an outsider. (I don’t think Fowler is making a general point here, but she might be.) And Lowell demonstrates a different response to something that both he and Rosemary find unbearable: over time, she disappears into herself while he disappears literally. Shortly after his eighteenth birthday, on the eve of a basketball match in which he is to play a key role, he takes all the money he can lay his hands on and he’s out of there forever. Cue more bullying for the twelve-year-old Rosemary: she’s the sister of the guy who sabotaged a key game. But, more importantly, Fowler now has a character who might or might not have links with the Animal Liberation Front. He frees the rats in his father’s lab before leaving and, at the point I’ve reached, Fowler can use somebody with exactly this back-story to come into Rosemary’s life and re-open some old wounds.

This doesn’t happen until the end of Part 4, and there’s an almost impenetrable social morass for Rosemary to negotiate at college before we get there. Sometimes she’ll let us in on a complete conversation, like the one when she realises that everyone is doing exactly the opposite of what she now always does.: you’re supposed to say how crazy your family is, as the others all do in predictable detail. When Rosemary says her family is normal they all find it very weird, but she continues to project the good-girl persona we recognise from the opening of the novel. She has friends, of a sort, and mentions a small number of sexual encounters made gruesome by her own lack of expectations. But she’s going nowhere, drifting.

And then we get the opening of Chapter 6: ‘Some years passed. / Enter Harlow.’ The key thing about Harlow, Rosemary decides, is that she’s another monkey-girl. Not literally – but the persona that she presents is uninhibited, unrestrained by the rules that Rosemary has spent most of her life constructing. She describes the opening scene of the novel again, and it makes sense. Something in Harlow’s behaviour makes Rosemary realise, for the first time in her life, that we don’t always have to repress the inner primate. As she’s told us often enough, we’re all primates anyway. She decides that Harlow can see through the persona that makes most of the other students keep their distance (she describes how this happens with the girlfriend of her room-mate), describing this law-abiding, rather dull young woman as though she’s the most interesting person on campus.

And most of Part 4 is about how Rosemary tries to cope with the disorientating whirl she lives through after that Thanksgiving when she finds Harlow in her place. Fowler strews her path with mishaps and misadventures that begin to take on metaphorical significance. There’s the lost suitcase we know about from the early chapters: when it finally turns up it’s the wrong one, so she’s lost, perhaps forever, the journals her mother has given her to keep (and read, but only if she wants to). Harlow gets her to agree to open the other suitcase, the pink one that isn’t hers, and it contains – wait for it – a ventriloquist’s dummy, ‘Madame Defarge’. You should just see the adventures in metaphysical ventriloquism that Harlow makes her have with Madame.

One evening is described in detail, over several chapters, and it takes Rosemary further into monkey-girl territory than she’s been since grade school. There are bars, highly flirtatious ventriloquism (Harlow, not Rosemary), several interested men, uppers that later keep Rosemary awake all night, a lost bicycle and… another night in jail. But it can be like that in novels – nothing happens for ten years, then everything happens at once. And I haven’t even mentioned the biggest thing: one of the men in one of the bars is – guess. She’s been looking for Lowell ever since the apartment manager told her he’d called, the last time we’d been on the college time-line in Part 1. And, just when the last vestiges of Rosemary’s sober persona have been thoroughly shredded, there he is. It’s been, as if we need reminding, ten years.

All night and into next day she worries, of course, what he will have made of the sister he’s just met after all that time. Will he think she’s always like that, high on uppers and whatever she’s been drinking? How will he have any concept of what it’s been like for her to have been forced into adopting a persona he saw nothing of? And so on. She eventually tracks him down next evening, following a highly provocative lecture on the sexuality of both male and female chimpanzees (you couldn’t make it up), in a restaurant with Harlow. Still feeling psychically bruised by the lecture, Rosemary is disturbed by every last nuance of their body language. There are more opportunities for her to guess, and second-guess, and third-guess the signals that she and her brother are sending to one another. But the clearest signals of all make it quite clear where the evening is going for him and Harlow, and… it that’s exactly where it goes. Rosemary feels – what? Confused, side-lined, betrayed.

But. Just like in the old days, Lowell wakes her in the middle of the night. They walk, and begin to talk. As narrator, Rosemary helpfully tells the reader she’ll skip to the important part – this has never stopped being a self-conscious narrative – and gets to the information he has on Fern. 48 hours after leaving the family home, he’s tracked down the laboratory where she is being kept… and it’s gut-wrenching. Fern is clearly traumatised – Rosemary draws a parallel with her own experience in jail, but admits how lucky she was to have only spent two nights there. Fern is desperate for Lowell to take her away, but there’s nothing he can do. Battered by her desperately pulling him into the bars and covered in shit hurled by an aggressive male, he is thrown out. And he’s never seen her since.

Ok. So how does Rosemary know, as she told us sometime in Part 1 or 2, that Fern is still alive in 2012? At the end of the novel is she, as I’ve suspected since she told us back then, with her? Has she embraced her monkey-girl identity and gone to live with the chimps?

25 January
Parts 5 and 6 – to the end
No, she hasn’t. Rosemary. Gone to live with the chimps. However… Fowler, kindly author that she is, has allowed her the nearest thing to it. By a series of manoeuvres whose plausibility we don’t need to concern ourselves with just now, she has arranged for her narrator to have close contact with Fern, and a kindergarten job in which she, Rosemary, can share with the children in her care the best of what she learnt from her five years as a monkey-girl. You should just see the grooming and lip-pursing, hear the oo-oo sounds of appreciation. Bless.

A feel-good ending always sends the reader away happy, but there are more revelations before we get there. Where to start? Perhaps with the repressed memory – you know, the kind of Freudian thing Rosemary’s father is sarcastic about earlier in the novel – of how Rosemary herself was responsible for getting rid of Fern. This is according to Lowell, and one version of her own memory. It starts off as a not-quite innocent story about a childish trick she plays on Fern, when she steals a kitten from its mother and flaunts it as a trophy. Fern is almost beside herself with jealousy, but the real complication comes with the arrival of the mother. She and Fern have a confrontation involving that primordial standing-up of the fur on both sides and… Fern, who has hold of the kitten, swings it against a tree and opens it up, top to bottom, ‘like a purse’.

But this isn’t the whole story. Rosemary tells Lowell – and he doesn’t believe her. They can’t find the dead kitten and, in later life, Rosemary sometimes doubts her own memory. Lowell makes her swear not to mention it to their parents, so she doesn’t… but a five-year-old can’t keep something like that under wraps for long. The next time she receives a violent push from Fern – the sort of thing Fern has done before, as her strength grows – Rosemary tells her parents she’s scared she is going to hurt her. And that’s it. In Lowell’s version, she made up stories about Fern and got her exiled. But now, as she re-lives the memory for the first time in years, she decides the kitten story is too vivid for a five-year-old to have made up. She might have brought about Fern’s angry excitement with her taunting, but she didn’t deliberately get rid of her. So… there’s plenty of scope for revisiting the old questions about how the brain filters and reassembles memories, but Rosemary is ok about it.

For all the talk of family membership and Fern’s status as Rosemary’s sister, when it’s the human child in danger there’s only one way things could go. In a part of Lowell’s story that Rosemary, narrating it, only chooses to recount now, he explains how Fern was never taken to any farm. Their father’s star was already beginning to wane, and funding for the project was pulled with his abandonment of the Fern experiment. Fern was sold off to a different research lab, the creepily sadistic one Lowell reached when he was eighteen, and everything had seemed hopeless as he left her desperate in her shared cage. But… her story afterwards becomes part of the feel-good mood of the last pages of the novel. She ends up near where Rosemary can get a job, and a permanent Skype link makes Fern and her children – oh, yes – almost a part of the class. And Fowler, the consummate manipulator of this little narrative, makes sure it ends on the most upbeat of all possible notes. She has Rosemary rewind to her first reunion with Fern. ‘Her body had become unfamiliar to me…’ – oh, dear – but this is ‘My sister, Fern…. As if I were looking in the mirror.’

Ok, got it. But there are other things going on in Parts 5 and 6, both tying up loose ends and, at the same time, digging more deeply into the issue of animal rights. Rosemary, nearly 40 now, is unmarried but, up to a point, fulfilled. She and her mother are entirely reconciled, and have helped to pay for better welfare for Fern and five other chimpanzees. You’ll never guess where the money comes from – no, really. The ‘journals’ her mother wrote, and which finally do turn up in the missing suitcase, are baby books of Rosemary and Fern’s first five years. With a bit of tweaking, they are able to have them published. There’s a possibility, no more than that, that Rosemary and her mother can edit the research notes and have them published on the back of the first book’s popularity. Rosemary hopes that Fern and the others will have a bigger compound, next to the school or her own house (I forget which) so that they really will be as good as one big happy family again. Chimpanzees and humans can’t actually live together, as she explains at some length, but they can be close.

So there’s complete reconciliation with Mom? Yep. (Dad hasn’t lasted so long, his sense of failure leaving him a functioning alcoholic with health problems that kill him in his fifties.) She, the mother, is able to visit Fern as well, although there isn’t the same bond as with Rosemary. Ok. And then there’s Lowell. He is in jail now, and it’s on a visit to him that the memory of the catastrophic incident with the kitten somehow becomes dislodged. For some reason, Fowler has him try to assure Rosemary that he never intended to live a life on the run, never intended to become one of the country’s busiest activists. She also has Rosemary assure the reader that the ALF is very careful indeed to ensure that no humans are harmed in the making of their high-profile protests. So that’s all right then.

Everything’s all right. That’s the point. We might be sadder and wiser readers at the end of all this, having learnt a lot about how humans mistreat animals, but we’re ok with it. Maybe we’ll be more careful about how our food is sourced, how our drugs are tested – but even Rosemary, after all her experiences, offers no answer to the dilemma she raises: if drugs for Alzheimer’s and cancer are being tested on animals, what should we do?

We’re human, and when did a novel ever change anything? We’ll carry on as before.

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