The Family Business: Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

For all the suffering that the three (well, two really… or… three?) Cooke siblings Lowell, Fern, and Rosemary go through growing up, you can’t help but feel that none of them should really be blaming each other. That’s pretty much a given in Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which was recently nominated for the Man Booker. In this way, Fowler’s novel is a prosaic Royal Tenenbaums, a story about three children who would have grown up alright if not for the royal mess started especially by their father without much regard or remorse for the repercussions. Unlike Tenenbaums however, the Senior Cooke fails to atone for his sins and emerges largely as the overarching antagonist of the novel. Ironically, he achieves this while remaining mostly absent from the novel itself; Rosemary underlines this when she makes an effort to remind us of her father’s name, which I recall being Vince, but I’m not so sure anymore. How we remember that guy is telling of who he really was more than anything else: a psychologist.

The other great difference between Fowler’s novel and Tenenbaums is that Fern, the “middle child”, is a chimpanzee, and like Rosemary, I must stress here that you’re probably already thinking that Fern isn’t part of their family at all. Actually, convincing the reader that Rosemary and Fern are sisters (and to some degree, identical twins) is probably one of the novel’s greatest strengths. As we go through Rosemary’s reflections on her college years and her struggles to remember her childhood with Fern, we are presented with an organic relationship whose moments of tension are deeply felt, especially in the novel’s final pages. I myself admit that the final scene is particularly memorable as it carries with it not only the resolution of Rosemary’s strained relationship with her sister, but her turning to Fern as a result of her strained relationships with pretty much everyone else.

Interestingly, much of the book’s tension relies on Rosemary’s unreliability as a focalizer-narrator, rather than her strained relationships. Though she appears to have complete control over the order of events (she begins her story in the exact middle, as it were), Rosemary is conscious of her own mind’s capacity to trick itself; time and time again, she explains psychological concepts old and new to conveniently remind you that she may not remember everything exactly as it happened. You begin to question whether or not Rosemary’s recollection of an event is faithful to its reality. Otherwise, it may be a watered-down version.

Simultaneously, crucial scenes are withheld for later dramatic effect. This was one of the things that didn’t quite work for me. Rosemary tends to make open references to these events without showing them to us. Instead of tension, the novel sparked up some confusion. I found myself going back and forth, wondering, “That happened already? How could I miss that?” Rosemary also has a tendency to ramble, to digress, which, though appropriate to her character, lost my attention sometimes. A number of background characters seem to lack relevance or are simply convenient to the plot, and Harlow, though the catalyst for Rosemary’s re-evaluation of her relationships with her siblings, is annoying as hell.

Perhaps the novel’s best parts are the Cooke family members’ confrontations with each other, both in the past and in the future. I pored through the first few parts, which presents Rosemary’s early life, struggled a bit through Rosemary’s college years, in which her family seems almost totally absent, and enthralled by the novel’s final third, which brought Rosemary back to Lowell, to her mother, and to Fern. Rosemary’s encounter with her runaway brother Lowell in her college years signals the beginning of her true empathy with Fern. It becomes apparent that while she was aware of her similarity to Fern, she was never aware of her sameness with her. The middle absence is thus fitting, meant to underline Rosemary’s sameness/twinness with Fern, her being thrust into a completely different, hostile environment than the one in which she grew up. The time Rosemary spends with her mother after college is also quietly emotional as Rosemary finally comes to terms with the truth, having obtained her mother’s journals from that early, unobtainable part of her life with Fern. Suddenly, her mother’s attempts to bring the truth to light become her own conscious act of atonement. This prompts Rosemary to fight against a world of cruelty in her own way, which puts her somewhat in the same line of work as Lowell albeit less radical. It might be said then that the family business has changed largely, still dealing in the same market but going in a different direction entirely.

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