When there is an invisible elephant in the room, one is from time to time bound to trip over a trunk.
When you think of a Booker Prize book, what springs to mind? A Luminaries, perhaps: a copious word-mountain of benevolent, Dickensian heft. (Sounds like The Goldfinch.) A Wolf Hall: cleverly extrapolated historical resurrection. The Remains of the Day: deep emotional potency wrought out of suffocation and poignantly funny misconception. All recognizably Bookerish (although to be honest I always think, when mention of any of those are made, of the books I preferred that missed out). Of course, this year the goalposts have been shifted, and touchdowns are now admissible. I’m one of the few people, still, who feel the switch to include U.S. authors, in particular, was a shot in the arm for a latterly ailing award, and a chance to drag-up the overall standard of the books in the running. I think the United States has a disproportionate number of the best writers around, as has been the case for a very long time, and whilst it would be good to believe that the old format might find better judges and chairs in the future to delve amongst the best of Commonwealth fiction, simply having that glut of U.S. books in the mix can only be a good thing, for me.
And despite all that we have a strange old longlist this time. I won’t bother running through what I see as scandalous omissions. I’ll just get straight onto one of the first four ever U.S.-longlisted titles, Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2014), a book I enjoyed in many ways but which doesn’t strike me as anything like a potential Booker winner.
Karen Joy Fowler, incidentally, is plentifully blessed with a lot of the attributes that I find irresistible when it comes to American fiction. She seems indefatigable — that is, her prose is amped up and restlessly abundant and her paragraphs feel spring-loaded, vehemently persuasive and zestful. You hang onto her characters and are pulled through rapidly negotiated pages, and the pace and energy of We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves is simply something identifiably North American (and I include Canadian writers like Mordechai Richler and Douglas Coupland in that observation, a kind of neurotic all-inclusiveness that would seem to characterize a lot of their prose, as though the world experienced by writers from those environs has provoked a kind of imminent-apocalypse garrulousness, a determination to go toe-to-toe with the vast spinning sweep of everything. In the right hands, I’ve always found such an approach addictive and generous and just plain old exhilarating).
Our omniscient protagonist, Rosemary, is a fairly troubled kid: an early scene has her picked up from jail, her having exhibited a spot of highly impetuous and inappropriate (and carefully construed for a re-read as very much monkeyish) solidarity wit
You discover her family: also troubled. Mum is intermittently catatonic and grief-stricken (we will discover why); dad is an aggrieved but stoic psychologist (animal behavior of particular interest. Of less interest: a well-adjusted family) with a weakness for whiskey. An adored brother, Lowell, is somewhat mercurial and, latterly, absent (with the FBI on his tail following a bit of highly relevant mischief), and a sister, Fern, is also absent, for somewhat different reasons — she’s a chimpanzee and, not only that: she was brought up as one of two makeshift inter-special “twins” along with Rosemary (Fern is now in the clutches of a nefarious scientist, Dr Uljevik, who seems busy ruthlessly reintegrating her as a chimp following her stint as a “human”), who is not only dealing with the wrenching loss of her mirror, partner in climb and sister, but with the gulf that now exists between her and peer humans, who she can’t really connect with, having learned all kinds of tricky-to-relinquish and entirely inappropriate behavior, for a nascent human at least, and as part of a mass-observed experiment used to indulgent, inordinate attention to boot.
One day, every word I said was data, and carefully recorded for further study and discussion. The next, I was just a little girl, strange in her way, but of no scientific interest to anyone.
Fowler throughout wrests odd, often uneasy laughs from Rosemary’s necessary adherence to non-chimp ways in order to successfully ingratiate herself with other infants.
Here are some things my mother worked with me on, prior to sending me off to school: Standing up straight. Keeping my hands still when I talked. Not putting my fingers into anyone else’s mouth or hair. Not biting anyone, ever. No matter how much the situation warranted it. Muting my excitement over tasty food, and not staring fixedly at someone else’s cupcake. Not jumping on the tables and desks when I was playing. I remembered these things, most of the time.
Our “conditioning,” as such, is oft touched upon by Fowler, but it tends to feel a little forced, a little Oprah. There is also plenty mentioned regarding humans developing through mimicry far more than any other animal, and as such, her success at being accepted as a human and not the remorselessly tormented “monkey-girl” would, as her dad (he’s got it covered alright: never mind the savage bullying that his little experiment has resulted in!) has it, rests on artificially applying such knowledge.
Dad gave me some tips designed to improve my social standing. People, he said, liked to have their movements mirrored. When someone leaned in to talk to me, I should likewise lean in. Cross my legs if they did, smile when they smiled, etc. I should try this (but be subtle about it. It wouldn’t work if anyone saw I was doing it) with the kids at school. Well-meant advice, but it turned out badly, played too readily into the monkey-girl narrative — monkey see, monkey do. Which also meant I’d blown the subtlety part.
All such potentially interesting commentary is a little too mawkishly delivered to hit home in the head, and the heart, in any case, is the real target.
We don’t, by the way, find that aforementioned key, momentous “sis was a chimp” plot point out until 70-odd pages in: we are offered clues here and there (Rosemary climbing the bars of her cell, for example) but you get the impression that, apart from being a decent talking point (the twist!), simply stating the nature of the beast from the off might’ve been a turn-off for the kind of readers this is really geared to. A novel about a chimp and her human sister and the fallout? Best bury the simian reveal well into the book, sell it as an A.M. Homes-esque suburban disaster comedy and see what gives when they find out . . .
And the resulting response: everyone seems charmed, including Grayling and co. Because of the “twist” it’s a much more palatable proposition, I’d argue. I’m not suggesting that any of this necessarily renders the book better or worse, but it does, to me, add a layer of contrivance upon an already opaque bank of disbelief, which I was more than happy to suspend for the sake of entertainment but which got in the way of my being convinced by Fowler’s true intent. That it’s notionally about chimps v. humans is genuinely interesting: what it does with that premise is less interesting, more didactic and less revelatory than you’d hope, and I ended up with a sense that the idea was built into and molded across a kind of Lorrie Moore fictional world, rather than forming any real genesis for sincere debate and evolving out of serious philosophical design.
That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the book: it’s great fun. Fowler gets away with all kinds of authorial liberty, playing around metafictionally and occasionally interjecting to dismiss your potential inclination or warning you not to bother with the odd passing character — “Such a sweetheart. But don’t get attached to him; he’s not really part of the story.” — in a way that’s seamlessly employed. And I’m always happy to see a wide selection of eccentric, addled, compromised and funny characters run amok. Rosemary is more than agreeable company, often left to her own devices, wandering the streets as a toddler, unfazed and endangered by her warped childhood, and subsequently affably odd as a teenager and adult. One or two scenes that recount the very early days for both Rosemary and Fern and their burgeoning sisterhood are touching and affecting, and the occasions when Rosemary understands Fern’s actions as fearful, as everyone else misconstrues her behavior as an endearing hoot, are intriguing, particular as they hint at what might have been had Fowler followed a more digressive, soberly interesting direction with the book.
And, it should be said: Karen Joy Fowler often musters superb dialogue exchanges. Her comic timing and acid eloquence is consistently glorious, particularly early on. She’s a bit like Nora Ephron, spiky and heartfelt, and seems to do what the aforementioned Lorrie Moore does a little better in sketching out character through barbed, defensive verbal tennis. Although, on the few occasions that such zestful mordancy palls, it becomes a little like Karen Russell off-cuts.
The book is certainly at its best when not being pithily pedagogic. It often zips by in a snappily sardonic, engaging way, and its lack of caution, both in voice and narrative expedience, is exactly why the Americans are more than welcome on the Booker longlist. It doesn’t flag too any great degree, merely becomes temporarily syrupy and over-emphatically pious, as though the comedy has been checked lest we forget to keep our brows furrowed, and were its heart kept out of sight quite a lot more as opposed to on its sleeve and in your face, it might’ve been a worthy contender.
Indeed, the parallels Fowler draws between chimps and humans are often invasively overstated. The basic premise of the book — that by one remove, by looking at the plight of chimps brought into a human environment and then wrenched out of it, we can understand how unevolved we are, how delusional and chimplike we still are, how potentially savage and vulnerable, etc. — is not allowed to unfold without nut fragments flying as a big blurry sledgehammer smashes them across most of the pages. This isn’t subtle: it has a message and it has a loudspeaker with which to make sure you hear it. It’s a book that makes your ears hurt. It’s designs are heavily, ostentatiously signposted in a too-cloying manner too often: a shame in an otherwise pawky, entertaining read. For an example of Fowler’s facile (but funny) shoehorning of chimp/human parallels, try:
“Whatev,” Abbie said, which in 1992 meant you didn’t really care no matter how much it had sounded as if you did. She didn’t just say this; she used a hand sign as well — index fingers up, hands joined at the thumbs into a W. That we had forced her to whatev us made our silence so much worse.
Whatev was the first hand sign I learned at college, but there were several popular then. There was the thumb-and-index-finger L held against the forehead, which meant Loser. The whatev W could be flipped up and down, W to M to W to M, in which case it meant Whatever, your mother works at McDonalds. ‘Cause that’s the way we rolled back in ’92.
So college students often resemble chimpanzees! I’ll say they do. Regardless, the preceding excerpt is a good barometer for whether or not such heavy-handed postulations come with the necessary sprinkling of sugar for your tastes. Fowler avers plentifully via Rosemary, not so much with a nudge as with a largely forgivable elbow, “Not only am I, your product-of-an-entirely-cruel experiment protagonist, understandably chimplike, everyone is, when you get down to it.” She perpetually underlines the pomposity and accepted savagery of the master race, the selfishness, the chaotic tendencies, and attempts to bridge the gap between evolutionary cousins. The problem with the method of inducing any such comparison in the manner that Fowler has chosen is that the scatty feel of the book ultimately mangles the seriousness of her intent. There’s too much levity, too little heft. The potentially powerful moments, when they arrive, feel like a lurch too far from the established tone of slick satire. It’s tricky to shift gears from Sarah Silverman to serious sermon, and therein, I think, lies the book’s main weakness. I bemoaned the insistent preachiness, at times, and yearned for more of the loquacious froth that’s so much fun. Without the awkward moralizing, the novel would slip down a lot easier. But then, it wouldn’t be on the Booker longlist. It’s an “issue” piece, a book with a supposedly provocative stance, but for this reader it’s much better taken as a light bit of superbly executed comedy with clunky gravitas bolted on. And a bad ending straight out of the slush pile. Good, then, not great.
Ultimately, as a means of getting plenty of gently pointed laughs about chimp/human similarity, the book is a success. In terms of using the symbiotic relationship in the book, the “twinness” of Rosemary and Fern, it over eggs it. It’s a clever surge through the lives of a dysfunctional family, not thesis-worthy intellectual insight. Or: it’s Cameron Crowe’s version of Project Nim.