If there’s anything to be said for going into a book completely clueless, it should be said about Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. I didn’t go into it clueless (as I am categorically incapable of not reading back-cover blurbs) but a friend of mine did, and I’ve spent the better part of my standard review prep period (read: eating cashews and staring out the window) thinking about how different my experience with WAACBO would have been if I didn’t know from the very first page that Fern, the absentee sister about whom narrator Rosemary Cooke is writing, is [SPOILER] a chimp.
This information, while crucial to the novel’s plot—WAACBO is, in fact, Rosemary’s adult reflection on growing up with, and then without, Fern—isn’t officially revealed until page 77, which is a hell of a long time to leave the species of a main character intentionally ambiguous. And yet, whether by accident or tacit agreement among everyone involved with the publishing and promotion of this book, it is a hard spoiler to avoid: WAACBO’s cover (my version, at least) has a chimp on it, and Rosemary’s most pertinent quote on the matter—”I tell you Fern was a chimp and already you aren’t thinking of her as my sister”—is included in the plot summary on the back cover. Somewhat less egregiously, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves has since its publication attained a reputation as an “animal rights novel,” which to the uninformed reader certainly begs the question: Wait, there’s an animal?
It is this facet of WAACBO, its unique presentation of the moral questions surrounding the scientific use of animals, that makes it impossible for me to review the novel without mentioning that Fern is indeed a chimpanzee. Apologies if you feel slighted by my decision, but let me assure you: This is a book whose spoilers are incidental, a beautifully written and impactful thought experiment that deserves every accolade it has already received, plus many more. Nuanced and engrossing and extremely relevant, WAACBO may be the best book I’ve read this year.
Fern’s inclusion in the Cooke family is scientific in nature: Rosemary’s father brings her home when Rosemary herself is just a baby, and the two are raised in tandem, as human/chimp twins, so that something might be learned about the developmental capabilities of chimpanzees brought up and educated by people. Though fictional here, such humanzee experiments have gone down IRL in the past, and Rosemary makes mention of comparable attempts to study the intellectual and social progression of domesticated chimps (examples here, here and here).
But the road to animal cruelty can be paved with good intentions (hell, even the road to having your face torn off is paved with good intentions) and it’s the complications presented by a childhood with Fern that inspire Rosemary’s story, which takes us from her adolescence to college, adulthood and back.
It would have been easy, in Fowler’s position, to turn WAACBO into a manifesto against animal experimentation. One need only read a single article about cosmetics companies painting toxic chemicals onto rabbits’ eyeballs to wonder whether humans should, on the whole, be more concerned about our wanton indifference toward animal suffering, and particularly animal suffering at the hands of purveyors of long-lasting lip gloss and waterproof mascara.
Nor is lab testing the only example here: In New York right now, a trial is underway for 22-year-old Andre Robinson, who could face jail time over kicking a cat and posting a video of it on Facebook. Massachusetts just passed a bill increasing maximum prison time for animal abuse cases to seven years (implying that the previous maximum, five years, hasn’t done enough to curb abuse). In Texas, a man got five years in prison for dragging a donkey behind his truck. In Brooklyn last month, a woman threw a dog down a garbage compactor chute in her building; it later died from its injuries.
Whether or not you think juvenile tomfoolery or run-of-the-mill pet abuse deserves a prison sentence, and ignoring for the moment that experimentation on lab animals can and does often engender life-saving medical developments for humans, I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that our God complex is never on greater display than when it comes to everyone lower than us on the food chain. We kill and hurt animals for food and medical progress, yes, but also for sport, for fashion, for decor, and for fun. We breed “pure” domesticated animals while letting their peers of lesser lineage die in shelters or on the streets. We terrorize dogs and roosters and watch them fight each other, stick spears into panicked bulls and call it tradition, and turn farms into massive slaughterhouses to satisfy our need for ever-fatter, ever-cheaper chickens, cows and pigs. On a grand scale, we’ve presided over a 52% decline in the number of wild animals since 1970—that’s worth repeating: We’ve lost half of our animals in the last 40 years. We decimate species and destroy environments and can’t be bothered to think much about it unless it offers up a Facebook-ready photo op. Whether or not people are, at heart, good people, I think it’s fair to say that we are not very good animals.
To her credit, Fowler doesn’t give in to what I would have found an irresistible urge to rail on these indignities, and WAACBO does a great job of presenting the negatives of embarking on something like the Fern experiment from the familial/human/emotional perspective, as well as the moral one. Chimps, in particular, prove a unique challenge in this respect, as humans are both aware of their tendency to be violent and unpredictable, and yet easily felled by their ability to seem like adorable little people. It’s easy to imagine a 4-year-old Rosemary and a 4-year-old Fern in matching jumpers, playing on the swings in the backyard. It’s also easy to imagine how Fern’s ability to dress herself and sign words and emote would make their parallel childhoods confusing, especially as the demands of adolescence make their differences—one human sister, one chimp sister—more pronounced. It’s easy to want the Rosemary/Fern experiment to succeed, even while understanding why it can’t, and perhaps why it shouldn’t.
With the exception of last weeks’ Gaiman, I’ve read a lot of dense books lately, 500+-pagers weighed down by descriptive language and sweeping plot lines. WAACBO isn’t that kind of book. It’s physically light but emotionally heavy, equal parts sad and funny and intense without being overdone. Fowler writes with such ease that no word feels added for mere effect; no aside is thrown in without cause. Like Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars (my perhaps-favorite read of 2013), We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is great because of, not in spite of, its brevity. Fowler manages to inject as much nuance into 300 pages as one might expect in 500, and as much heart as one might find in 1,000. WAACBO may not be the most linguistically acrobatic book you read this year, but it’s as close to perfect as one can—humanly—expect.
TITLE: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
AUTHOR: Karen Joy Fowler
PAGES: 307 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: The Jane Austen Book Club, What I Didn’t See
SORTA LIKE: The Dog Stars meets Swamplandia!
FIRST LINE: “Those who know me now will be surprised to learn that I was a great talker as a child.”