You know Karen Joy Fowler, though probably only for her least representative novel — that charming bestseller “The Jane Austen Book Club.” It landed with perfectly calibrated Janite wit in 2004 during a wave of renewed enthusiasm for Austen and book clubs. But aside from that domesticated crowd-pleaser, Fowler is also the author of genre-blending works of historical fiction and fantasy. Her stories have won the Nebula Award, the Shirley Jackson Award and the World Fantasy Award. In 1991, she co-founded the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, a prize “for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender.”
One never knows what to expect from her.
Her new novel, for instance, involves an ordinary Midwestern family: two parents and three children.
The younger daughter is a chimpanzee.
And why not? If Gregor Samsa can turn into a cockroach and Edward Albee can ask, “Who is Sylvia?”, a chimp for a sibling doesn’t seem so far down the evolutionary tree. In fact, just as most of us have decided that we should probably stop torturing chimps to death in the name of science, an outrageous community of simian novels has been congregating in the branches of the library, from the “autobiography” of Tarzan’s sidekick, “Me Cheeta,” by James Lever, to “The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore,” by Benjamin Hale.
But there’s nothing fantastical about Fowler’s new novel with its drawing-room title, “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.” In fact, the plot is inspired by several real experiments, including the work of Winthrop and Luella Kellogg, scientists at Indiana University who raised their baby son alongside a chimp for almost a year in the early 1930s.
Fowler places her story in the 1970s and extends the experiment to five years. Dr. and Mrs. Cooke live in a farmhouse with a gaggle of graduate students in Bloomington, Ind. They have a son named Lowell and two new daughters, Rosemary and Fern. Rosemary never stops talking; Fern never starts. But their parents have “promised to love them both exactly the same.” So far, so normal.
In a witty, conversational voice, Rosemary reluctantly parcels out the details of her “chimped-up household.” She doesn’t mention her sister’s body hair issue until page 77. “I spent the first eighteen years of my life defined by this one fact,” she says. “It’s never going to be the first thing I share. . . . In my defense, I had my reasons,” she adds. “I tell you Fern is a chimp and, already, you aren’t thinking of her as my sister. You’re thinking instead that we loved her as if she were some kind of pet.” She’s right, of course. Fern’s identity is the 800-pound gorilla in the room. The mechanics of this weird family arrangement are irresistible: How did the Cookes care for these two toddlers, feed them, dress them, keep them from hurting each other? “What was the goal of the Fern/Rosemary Rosemary/Fern study before it came to its premature and calamitous end?”
As an adult looking back on her famous childhood, Rosemary is curious about those questions, too. But the answers are elusive because once Fern left the family, no one mentioned her again, and it’s not at all clear what precipitated her departure. All Rosemary can do now — many years later — is try to excavate memories of their time together and catch lingering impressions of her sister still persisting in her own personality.
All this sounds like rich material for a novel, but there’s more. “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” isn’t just about an unusual childhood experiment; it’s about a lifetime spent in the shadow of grief. Clearly, something traumatic happened when Rosemary was 5, something that turned her from a loquacious little girl into a quiet young woman. But unearthing the details of that event means digging in a mental landscape strewn with psychological land mines. Others can’t or won’t tell her the truth. Her own memories are confused and clouded. She’s grown wise and skeptical about the slippery nature of family history. “Language does this to our memories,” she says, “simplifies, solidifies, codifies, mummifies. An oft-told story is like a photograph in a family album; eventually, it replaces the moment it was meant to capture.”
Although the story moves erratically over almost 40 years, it focuses on a few chaotic days in 1996 when Rosemary was a fifth-year student at the University of California at Davis. An unlikely friendship with an unstable fellow student triggers a series of confusing feelings. “This, finally, was the moment the hypnotist snapped her fingers,” Rose says ruefully. Curious but wary, and with a wry reference to the damage done by Sigmund Freud, she begins reconstructing what happened to her and her family, handling old memories worn “thin as Roman coins.” Refreshingly, she has the humility to admit that she can’t tell whether she’s making some of this up: “I was completely buried in the unremembered, much disputed, fantasyland of the past.”
Plot is not the novel’s strongest suit. The wackiness that stumbles into the final chapters feels incongruous with the book’s poignancy and its serious themes. But Rosemary’s voice and her efforts to understand — and forgive — herself are moving. Fowler has such a sprightly tone, an endearing way of sloughing off profound observations that will illuminate your own past even if you have no chimps swinging in your immediate family tree.
It’s also impressive how gracefully Fowler resists the impulse that could have turned her novel into a shrill PETA poster. Toward the end, she offers a stomach-churning summary of animal research done during the 20th century, but that’s more a lament than an argument, an acknowledgment that “the world runs on the fuel of this endless, fathomless misery.” What does it mean to be human, she asks, and what does it mean to be humane? Although there’s little doubt where her sympathies lie, Fowler manages to subsume any polemical motive within an unsettling, emotionally complex story that plumbs the mystery of our strange relationship with the animal kingdom — relatives included.
Charles is the fiction editor of The Washington Post. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES
Karen Joy Fowler
Marian Wood/Putnam. 310 pp. $26.95