28. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler

25 Jul

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

The first few chapters of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves are a tour de force of voice—so biting, witty and strange that the book is nearly impossible to put down. I skimmed them in a bookstore, and then forgot the book title, and have been itched and nagged at until re-finding the book.

The action launches in midstream, as a story told by a girl who was once a tow-headed toddler who couldn’t stop talking. She describes her child-self as “prettier than I turned out.”  This narrator tells us her family is fractured, then invokes the fairy tale of two sisters, one of whom speaks in flowers and jewels, the other in toads and snakes. Which one will she be? What shut her up? It’s all a mystery, a careening plot, every line a mordant masterpiece. Like this one:

“My father was himself a college professor and a pedant to the bone. Every exchange contained a lesson, like the pit in a cherry. To this day the Socratic method makes me want to bite someone.”

When the narrator was a loquacious child, her father told her to “Skip the beginning. Start in the middle” of any story. That’s what she does in chapter one, launching into a set-piece scene when she is at college, overhearing a couple fighting in the dining hall. The girl, who has “beautiful biceps,” yells:

“‘Can everyone please leave the room so my boyfriend has more space? He needs a fucking lot of space'”.

She flips over his table to make some more room for him. I really laughed. And then our mild-mannered narrator is mistaken for the girl by campus security and by the end of the chapter they’re both in a squad car.

All of that and we don’t discover until a little later that the narrator in early childhood grew up with a monkey as part of a ’70s-era experiment, and that what we are really in for, among many other things, is thorny questions about animal rights. Surprise. The narrator thought of the monkey as her sister, and asks, “What if we treated animals as our brothers and sisters?” (The idea wreaks eventual tragic havoc on everyone from the experiment, human and animal alike.)

The chronology, construction, and plotting are mind-boggling-ly good.

All of this though, and strangely I didn’t love the book. I was put off by the Hollywood premise (girl raised with apes), and by the relentless slickness of the voice’s appeal. Of course we like girls who say they aren’t pretty. Of course we think animal cruelty is awful. Still, I would recommend it for anyone looking for something really readable and fun.

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