We are all Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler starts in the middle of things, which is always a good place to start. It saves us tedious beginnings and forces us to pay better attention. Shakespeare always started his plays in the middle of something, usually a conversation causing us to pay attention and try to catch up. We are in the middle of a family situation. A daughter, Rosemary Cooke, of a college professor is taking more than four years to complete college. Rose is the narrator and entertains us with her language prowess. She aced the SAT verbal. Part of the family problem arises with her older sister, Fern, a chimpanzee. Rose’s college professor father was a psychologist studying language and chimpanzees and raising a chimp with a human. Fern eventually has to move o to a different environment and that upsets the family dynamics.
I’m laughing one moment then weeping the next. Another dysfunctional family trying to put itself back together again at Thanksgiving, “Restored and repaired. Reunited. Refulgent.” We always think everyone else’s family is more normal than ours. The question raised here is that there is no normal family.
Memory plays an important part in this novel. Rose has memories and as she sifts through them with us, we get closer to her and slowly understand more about us primates and about our own cruel and shameful acts. Animal and behavior science still has a long way to go before it is humane. Rose loves to play with solipsism and the theory of mind as she interacts with classmates. She is constantly reminded that, “You always learn as much from failure as from success, Dad always says.” Personally. I think we learn more from failure, since success too often is a mistake and we really don’t know why we succeeded, but we do know more about why we fail. Still Rose wonders why she keeps making the same mistake over and over again.
Suddenly without warning this novel becomes a story about animal cruelty and the ALF, Animal Liberation Front. Lowell, Rose’s older brother, is up to his neck in this organization and is wanted by the FBI.
At some point during the reading, I remembered a family that once lived across the street from us when I was in 7th grade. The boy and I were friends. They had chimpanzee that lived with them. Their house was designed for the chimp. The house was separated. There was the chimp part and there was the human part. We spent lots of time in the chimp part because it was one large playroom. I don’t recall why they had a chimp nor why they had designed their house to accommodate the chimp. I remember when they moved, too. It was sad. I suspect now that my neighbors were like the Cookes.
I think I have to reread Franz Kafka’s “A Report for an Academy.”