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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Provocations from a modern master: Andrew Marr on David Hockney

A History of Pictures by David Hockney and Martin Gayford gleefully punctures the pretentiousness of the art world.

We live in a picture-drunk world. A medieval artisan would have been aware, at best, of only a few representations of the three-dimensional world – church paintings, perhaps crude carvings in a churchyard, graffiti on walls. For us, pictures are everywhere, on
screens of all shapes and sizes, on hoardings, in books, on the sides of buildings. They move, they pulsate with digital complexity and they sprawl and glare until they tire our eyeballs and bore us senseless.

This is a book that aspires to be nothing less than a history of pictures, taking drawing, photography, film-making, digital art and painting in parallel and tracking the interrelationships and the borrowing that each involves. That is a huge ambition, far too large for any single volume, yet ­David Hockney and Martin Gayford respond with lively expeditions in many directions and a staccato half-conversation that will keep any intelligent person amused and intrigued for its 350 or so pages.

No practitioner of “fine art” has placed himself at the centre of our culture quite as Hockney has. What he says about smoking or porn makes news. His exhibitions attract vast crowds. He is followed by reverential film-makers, avid biographers and snaking queues of ordinary folk who simply love his bright and life-enhancing images. He also intervenes to ask big questions about the nature of picture-making and the relationship between painters and photography, in a way that no other contemporary artist seems to do.

In all this – and in his tireless enthusiasm for new technologies in picture-making, as well as his curiosity about the rich and powerful – he is surely the Walter Sickert of our times. Sickert’s opinions, as well as his readiness to use photographic images to expand his art, allowed him to bestride British public life in the first half of the 20th century, very much as Hockney does today. Sickert, whose early work the public preferred, produced shockingly modern images of Baron Beaverbrook, Churchill and the celebrities of the interwar years. And so, this year, Hockney had his quickly painted acrylic portraits of the art world’s rich and Botoxed powerful, skewered to their chairs, glaring down at us in the “82 Portraits and 1 Still-life” exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. Both men were gifted with an almost divine facility; both struggled to overcome it, to produce pictures that could be regarded as properly “modern”.

Here, Hockney is paired with Martin Gayford, the author of excellent books on Hockney, Lucian Freud and many other artists, and a reliable, hugely knowledgeable Tonto on this journey. As they take off to discuss a wide range of subjects – shadows, pre-photography use of cameras and lenses, perspective, cubism, abstraction, film-making, digital art – the differences between them become increasingly sharp.

Hockney, with his strong and now familiar views, brings the perspective of a mark-maker to every subject: “If you’re told to do a drawing using ten lines or a hundred, you’ve got to be a lot more inventive with ten. If you can only use three colours, you have got to make them look whatever colour you want.” Gayford, who sometimes picks up on a Hockney challenge and sometimes ignores it, brings a seemingly bottomless knowledge of the history of art and is always a great looker, whether his subject is a Velázquez or Dada.

There is a certain degree of unintentional comedy here, Hockney repeatedly cantering off with an anecdote or salty personal view and Gayford gamely wrenching us back to the high road, but it’s all enormously good-humoured and entertaining. There is so much pretentious cack talked nowadays about art theory that it’s a relief to find an artist ready to use his experience as a film buff, or his thoughts on the manipulation of photographs in the press, to speak about “high art”.

“Walt Disney was a great American artist,” Hockney writes. “He might be a bit sentimental but what he did was quite an achievement. Who were the most famous stars of the 1930s and 1940s? Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.” And, a page later: “Look at the camels in Adoration of the Magi by Giotto, from the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, painted in the early 14th century. There’s Walt Disney.”

These are the kinds of stuff that would get laughed out of court in the pompous art world. The same goes for this (­Hockney again): “Art doesn’t progress. Some of the best pictures were the first ones. An indiv­idual artist might develop because life does. But art itself doesn’t.” Most academic writers would hedge such starkness but Hockney doesn’t. Again, very Walt Sickert.

So, where do these conversations take us when it comes to the biggest question for contemporary painting: what should a picture look like in 2016? There are so many derivative, unnecessary and tedious pictures all around us, and so much has been done so well for so long, that this is a real poser.

Hockney’s lifelong struggle with being an artist in a photography-dominated culture has rarely lured him away from the duty of representation or, to put it more crudely, drawing. He experimented with Picasso-influenced, semi-abstract pictures but not for long. He used photographic collages to investigate space but, again, not for long. His love of Chinese art and his inquisitive enthusiasm for graphic artists such as Joe Sacco
have allowed him to find ways to put chemical photography firmly back in its box:

People like Mondrian appear heroic, but in the end his pure abstraction was not the future of painting. Neither Matisse nor Picasso ever left the visible world. It was Europeans who needed abstraction, because of photography. The Chinese would have always understood it. But they did not need it . . . Photography came suddenly and late to China.

On almost every page, there is an interesting provocation. I suppose, for Hockney, his answers are what he makes, not what he writes. However, I would hate to end this review without making clear that Gayford brings perspectives and shape here that are hugely useful. This is not David Hockney Bangs On (a book that I would rush out to buy). There is apparently a far bigger book coming shortly, a kind of printed permanent exhibition of Hockney’s art, a book so big that it requires – literally – an easel, and a mortgage. Sickert would have found that very funny. Meanwhile, start here.

Andrew Marr’s books include “A Short Book About Drawing” (Quadrille)

Andrew Marr is a broadcaster and journalist. Formerly the BBC’s Political Editor, he presents the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 on Sundays and Start the Week on Monday mornings on Radio 4.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood