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

A still from Genius
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Thomas Wolfe biopic Genius is a hackneyed portrait of the great white male

Genius ends up being terrifically boring, while enthusiastically reproducing the creative hierarchies of the time it portrays.

You can learn everything you need to know about the film Genius, starring Jude Law as the volatile novelist Thomas Wolfe and Colin Firth as his weary editor, Maxwell Perkins, from its opening five minutes.

An overly desaturated shot of Twenties New York reveals a hoard of hardworking men trudging solidly through the ratrace of city life. But what’s this? One man is set apart, lingering on a street corner and staring up at the words “Charles Scribner’s Sons” on the building across the street. He smokes and stares, so we know he is like other men – yet different, more thoughtful.

Meanwhile, alone in an office, another man is reading Hemingway. He is interrupted by an enormous pile of papers that lands with a thud on his desk. This manuscript has been rejected by every other editor in the city (a sign of true, misunderstood literary genius). Is it any good, the reading man asks Manuscript Delivery Man? “Good? No! But it’s unique.”

Our reading man opens page one of the manuscript. “… A stone, a leaf, an unfound door…” His interest is piqued – here is a man who knows the earthy prose of a true male genius. We are treated to cinema's most captivating delight: a reading montage. The reading man barely glances up from his paper as he jumps aboard a leaving steam train. “… Of a stone, a leaf, a door…” The train races through the countryside. “And of all the forgotten faces…” The reading man trudges up a country path, still engrossed.

“Which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his father's heart?” The reading man enters his home. He spares a fleeting glance for a woman (His wife? It is hardly relevant) in a sitting room surrounded by pieces of womanly fabric and several other ladies. Nameless girls (His daughters? They are beside the point) run delicately from room to room, giggling. Over dinner, he looks up at them occasionally to smile blandly at their delightful artlessness, but he cannot enter into trivial conversation – immersed as he is in the world of the story. “Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door. Where? When?”

Our reader reads overnight, down the country path, on the same train in the morning light. “He stood for the last time by the angels of his father's porch,” he reads. “He was like a man who stands upon a hill above the town he has left.” He finishes the manuscript and sighs with the deep satisfaction of a man who is, finally, understood.

Cut to black. The word “GENIUS” appears on screen.

As an exploration of our problematic understanding of the word, Genius the movie is more revealing than any satire. It’s a script that could have been written by Mallory Ortberg. But its conception of genius as white, male, American, self-absorbed, indulgent, obsessed with its own individuality, and unable to comprehend its mediocrity, is presented without irony or self-awareness.

The movie continues in this general vein: Perkins and Wolfe strike up a friendship as well as a professional relationship and spend long hours together drinking whiskey, talking with what they consider to be great wisdom about how love is a lighting bolt!! and repeatedly crossing out words (as cinematically thrilling as you might expect). We meet other “geniuses” aside from Perkins and Wolfe: Hemingway and Fitzgerald. We ponder upon the real nature of genius – is it writing “wrenched from the gut”? Temperate editing? Or the genius of knowing your fellow man? There are writing montages, editing montages, and lots of close-ups of typewriting, crumpled papers, and streaks of red pencil. Hold on to your hats, kids, cause this is going to be a wild ride!

Women, black people, and the homeless are all used as vague backdrops onto which these conversations play out – but never fully considered as real, human people, people who Wolfe might find worthy for his next book, an investigation into America – all of it! In one scene, Wolfe and Perkins walk past a queue for a soup kitchen, prompting Wolfe to launch into a rant about the state of the country. “My work is frivolous!” he cries on a rooftop. But Perkins assures him of his enormous emotional contribution to society, and Wolfe soon seems to forget the men named on IMDB only as “Dock Worker / Homeless Man”. They stand arm-in-arm, smiling sagely out over a struggling city neither seem to know very well. Strings swell approvingly.

In another, we head to a jazz club with Wolfe and Perkins, so Perkins can experience the musical inspiration behind Wolfe’s experimental prose. The writers decide to best depict this with Wolfe throwing around words like “savage” while badly explaining the concept of jazz to anyone who’ll listen, before making grim sexual advances towards three women simultaneously: “Jazz Club Woman 1”, “Jazz Dancer” and “Jazz Club Customer”. It is not deemed necessary to give anyone other than Wolfe and Perkins any dialogue.

The film makes a less than half-hearted attempt to engage with the question of female creativity through Wolfe and Perkins’ partners. Wolfe’s girlfriend, the married Alice Bernstein (Nicole Kidman) is portrayed as Wolfe’s earliest and most steadfast champion: financially, emotionally and creatively supporting his literary endeavours. She is a set designer, and after Wolfe finds fame, he refuses to recognise her job as a creative or necessary pursuit, refusing to come to her plays.

As Wolfe becomes disinterested in her, Bernstein’s character changes at lightning speed scene to scene, one minute vindictively pointing a gun at her replacement, Perkins, the next swallowing handfuls of pills, supposedly as an act of attention-seeking, the next vowing she feels nothing for Wolfe at all. By the end of the film, she is reduced to muttering trite statements about how Wolfe was the sole thing that made her feel truly alive. We meet Zelda Fitzgerald, but only after she has been all but overcome by mental illness: she, too, is a hysterical prop used to warn the central men of the dangers of their obsession with their work.

Perkins’ wife is also a female artist side-lined. In one strange scene, we see her describe her playwriting, only to be talked over by Wolfe, who declares drama an “anaemic form” and returns to the topic of his novel, while Perkins’ daughters giggle at him in awe. We never hear of Louise’s work (or, indeed, anything about her that is not related to her husband and children) again. Perkins’ children, too, are only seen as interesting when they’re talking about their father or Wolfe.

These vague diversions do little to actually analyse the discriminatory way in which genius is conceived, be it in the Thirties or 2016. Here, genius is something white men do as their wives and daughters grow increasingly bitter. The homeless man standing out in the cold, or the black sex worker in a jazz club could have nothing of interest to add. In only allowing Wolfe and Perkins (and Hemingway and Fitzgerald) to speak for themselves, Genius ends up being terrifically boring, while enthusiastically perpetuating the creative hierarchies of the time it portrays. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.