Likely Stories: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Sep 28, 2017

Tragic tale of animal experimentation gone awry.


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

Karen Joy Fowler has authored six novels and three short story collections.  She has won a Pen/Faulkner award among numerous other prizes.  Fowler has two children, and seven grandchildren.  She lives in Santa Cruz, California.  In We are All Completely Beside Our Selves has penned a book at once curious, frightening, sad, and comical.  This fine tale tells the story of the Cooke family: the father, Vincent, who is a psychiatrist, his wife, and the children Lowell, Rosemary, and Fern.  The last two were raised together, until Fern was “sent away.” 

The novel is narrated by Rosemary, “sister” to Fern.  She begins the story “in medias res,” so I will do likewise.  Fowler writes, “So the middle of my story comes in the winter of 1996.  By then, we’d long since dwindled to the family that old home movie foreshadowed—me, my mother, and unseen but evident behind the camera, my father.  In 1996, ten years had passed since I’d last seen my brother, seventeen since my sister disappeared.  The middle of my story is all about their absence, though if I hadn’t told you that, you might not have known.  By 1996, whole days went by in which I hardly thought of either one. […] I was twenty-two years old, meandering through my fifth year at the University of California, Davis, and still maybe only a junior or maybe a senior, but so thoroughly uninterested in the niceties of units or requirements or degrees that I wouldn’t be graduating anytime soon.  My education, my father liked to point out, was wider than it was deep.  He said this often” (5-6).

Rosemary’s education seems to be a persistent topic for family discussion.  Karen writes, “Mom had a theory I heard through the bedroom wall.  You didn’t need a lot of friends to get through school, she told Dad, but you had to have one.  For a brief period in the third grade, I pretended that Dae-jung and I were friends.  He didn’t talk, but I was well able to supply both sides of the conversation.  I returned a mitten he’d dropped.  We ate lunch together, or at least we ate at the same table, and in the classroom he’d been given the desk next to mine on the theory that when I talked out of turn, it might help his language acquisition.  The irony was that his English improved due in no small part to my constant yakking at him, but as soon as he could speak, he made other friends.  Our connection was beautiful, but brief” (113).

Fowler has laid a series of less than obvious clues regarding an ending which will offer the reader something between shock and amusement.  How a reader places the clues determines where a reader begins to assemble these clues.  One peculiar item is the lack of a name for the mother.  I usually note names of important characters, and in beginning this review, I realized I had none for her. 

We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler is a tragic story difficult for animal lovers to read.  The only saving grace is the end of most chimpanzee experiments, and serious curtailing of test on other mammals.  5 stars

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories. And happy reading