Wednesday, May 07, 2014

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

I just finished this AMAZING book, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler, who recently was awarded the PEN/Faulkner Award. I read somewhere that it was Ruth Ozeki's favorite book from 2013 so that was just about good enough for me. Ozeki recommended not learning anything about it, although I must admit I scanned the summary on Amazon to make sure it wasn't about genocide in Rwanda or something. No offense to Rwandans, but, I mean, you have to prepare yourself mentally for those things. Genocide. God, I'm an idiot.

Anyway, after reading it, I agree, it is best to not learn anything about it, so, as I often encourage my small (but devoted?) readership, Please, stop reading now! Come back later after you've finished. Take Ruth Ozeki's and my word for it!

Alright, spoilers ahead.... Fowler does some interesting things with the narrative, like starting in the middle, then swinging back to the beginning and then wrapping back to the end again. But it's all driven by the main character's sort of inability to express parts of her life she's not ready to confront yet. So, when she begins (in the middle) she talked about being in college in the 90s, which I really loved because I went to college in the 90s. Fowler frequently drops a lot of cultural/scene setting elements, like a reminder that Hale-Bopp was gliding through, Dolly had just been cloned, Charles and Diana had just divorced...

Side note: When I was in college studying Art History at Indiana University, my professor showed a slide of the Bayeux Tapestry, which features a bunch of medieval folks pointing up into the sky with dopey looks on their faces, just like we were doing at night with our comet. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.  I believe the Bayeux Tapestry features Haley's Comet, not Hale-Bopp.  But, whatever.  
I love that comet
So, anyway, the main character, Rosemary, mentions how her sister "disappeared" and her brother ran off many years ago, and she misses them and thinks about them, but in her family, they don't talk about their absence.  Eventually she says that her sister is actually a chimpanzee whom she was raised with as part of a psychology experiment.  Her dad's a psych prof at Indiana University.  Where I went to college!  So, part of this book takes place in Bloomington, Indiana, a place near and dear to my heart.  And, if Bloomington, Indiana appears in a book, I'm pretty much guaranteed to love that book.  Like... The Stone Diaries, for example, which is one of my Favorite Books of All Time.   

Fowler touches on a lot of themes in this book - including memory, language, solipsism, scientific study, what it is to be human or animal - but what's never really questioned by Rosemary is her relationship to this chimpanzee.  She's her sister, plain and simple, and their separation makes her feel like a person who's been ripped apart from her twin.  The image of a mirror, and the mirror test, comes up again and again:

"... some species, like chimps and elephants and dolphins, recognize themselves in the mirror and others, like dogs and pigeons, gorillas and human babies, don't."

Her brother also disappears - he becomes an animal rights activist - considered a terrorist by the government.  He says, "We need a sort of reverse mirror test. Some way to identiy those species smart enough to see themselves when they look at someone else. Bonus points for how far out the chain you can go. Double bonus for those who get all the way to insects."  He's accused of organizing a attack on SeaWorld (this is pre-Blackfish, by the way.  If you've seen it, you'll want to organize an attack on SeaWorld too.)  "I expect the allegations are true, although an 'attack on SeaWorld' might mean a bomb, or it might mean graffiti and glitter and a cream pie in the face. The government doesn't always seem to distinguish between the two."

I'm not surprised this was a favorite by Ozeki because it had a lot of similarities to her work - literature that expands the reader's mind in a glory of language.  How we treat and live with animals is obviously a big theme in the book, and a relationship that I'm still thinking about, a week after finishing it.  The way Fowler writes about the consciousness of animals forces you to consider the way you treat all animals - not just the ones that kind of look like us, like chimps and apes, or the ones we live comfortably with, like dogs and cats, but all animals - with bonus points for insects.  

1 comment:

KHM said...

Kelly, what a powerful book this is! Thanks for calling attention to it.

BTW, I love The Stone Diaries, too.