Twist in the tail: a chimpanzee opens Christmas presents in a French zoo. Photo: Getty
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Utterly beguiling: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

A disturbingly funny account of sibling loss. But not the usual kind of sibling. 

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
Karen Joy Fowler
Serpent's Tail, 336pp, £12.99

This is the first time I have reviewed a novel about which it is almost impossible to say anything without destroying the moment of jolting astonishment that I experienced on first reading it. That makes it sound as though the value of Karen Joy Fowler’s seventh novel is predicated on its big reveal, or that it is some kind of superior thriller. It is hard to imagine a less apt description of her intricate, emotionally resonant and disturbingly funny account of sibling loss. Yet there is a devastatingly calibrated shift of perception about a quarter of the way into the text. If you don’t want to know what it is, don’t read on (but do read the novel, whose combination of quirkiness and passionate seriousness is utterly beguiling).

“Those who know me now,” remarks Fowler’s heroine, Rosemary Cooke, “will be surprised to learn that I was a great talker as a child.” At bedtimes, when her father came to say goodnight, she would try desperately to detain him with narrative. “I have something to say,” she would tell him. “Start in the middle, then,” he would answer. Decades later, that is exactly what she does.

Her story begins in 1996: “Ten years had passed since I’d last seen my brother, 17 since my sister disappeared. The middle of my story is all about their absence . . .” Cooke is 22, in her fifth year as a student at the University of California, Davis, a college that she has chosen for a particular reason.

She is eating in the university cafeteria one day when an epic row breaks out at the next table. The campus police are called and buffoonishly arrest not just the instigator of the fracas, Harlow Fielding (she is, inevitably, a drama student), but Rosemary as well.

Sprung from jail by her father, Rosemary flies home for the Thanksgiving holiday. It is a magnificently uneasy occasion. As she is about to return to college her mother makes an unexpected gesture: she wants Rosemary to have her old journals. Rosemary is dismayed: “What’s the point of never talking about the past if you wrote it all down and you know where those pages are?”

But the past is not so easily ignored. Rosemary returns to find Harlow comfortably installed in her room, having been thrown out by her boyfriend. Her fearless nosiness knows no bounds and in no time she is drawing Rosemary out about her eccentric childhood and her missing twin. On starting at college, Rosemary “made a careful decision to never ever tell anyone about my sister, Fern . . .” Yet Harlow’s ruthless interrogation brings her to the point “where I don’t see how to go further forward without going back” – all the way back to the day when, aged five, she was sent to stay with her grandparents and returned to find Fern gone and her family irreparably fractured.

What we haven’t been told until now is that Fern, “my twin, my funhouse mirror, my whirlwind other half”, was a chimpanzee. She and Rosemary were the subjects of an ingenious psychological experiment. “We were not the only household during this period attempting to raise a baby chimpanzee as if she were a human child,” Rosemary notes drily. “The aisles of the supermarkets in Norman, Oklahoma, where Dr William Lemmon was prescribing chimps liberally to his grad students and patients, were full of such families.”

In an afterword, Fowler explains that she, like Rosemary, was the daughter of a psychologist who worked with animals (but with rats, rather than apes, and in the lab, rather than at home). Her father, she writes, “taught me to see myself as one animal among many”, and this vision haunts Rosemary’s narrative, with its painfully worked-out revelations of how Fern came to disappear.

Fowler is best known for her novel The Jane Austen Book Club (2004) but she is also an award-winning writer of fantasy and science fiction. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves combines a precise Austenian sensitivity to emotional nuance with the discomforted perception of a narrator who feels herself an alien – for the effect on Rosemary of spending her first five years with Fern is that she sees the world at least partly from the point of view of an ape.

Rosemary’s melancholy and her sense of her own lingering otherness are balanced with an equally deep-rooted comic sensibility. There is no happy ending but reconciliation, of a kind, in which storytelling – the one thing that Rosemary could do and Fern couldn’t – becomes a form of flawed atonement in a narrative whose view of the human (and animal) condition has an unforgettable, tender ferocity.

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Tech Issue

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Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism