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.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

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 with a loose cannon. We get, from her very familiar disappointed-yet-defiant hangdog-on-caffeine voice (a kind of tone and assumed register I’m a sucker for, and, I pause before potential over emphasis, an entirely U.S. writer thing: Martin Amis built a career out of stealing it and adding fascinated disgust) a very acute and quickly established sense of who she is: she’s out of control, she’s automatically empathetic, she’s a vulnerable motormouth, she’s an emblematic outsider who doesn’t belong inside but nonetheless rails at her occlusion.

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 LoserThe 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.

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By |2014-08-18T14:34:43+00:00August 19th, 2014|Categories: Karen Joy Fowler|Tags: |16 Comments

16 Comments

  1. juliemcl August 19, 2014 at 7:52 am

    Great review, Lee! I loved Project Nim, and you made me chuckle with the as-done-by-Cameron-Crowe bit. I have this one home from the library and now I am seriously doubting whether I should dig into it. Do I have time for “good, but not great”? Hmmmm….I doubt it. (I also have out Niall Williams’s ‘History of the Rain’ – I’ve never even heard of him before but took it out on a whim and because I saw it is also on the longlist.)

    You know, I’d really actually just love to know what you think the scandalous omissions from the longlist are so I can get something good!

    Anyway, again, I really enjoyed reading this review because I was curious about this book. I may give it a try still.

  2. Lee Monks August 19, 2014 at 9:59 am

    Thanks, Julie, but please do give it a go: it’s a really fun piece of work and she’s a very good writer of a certain kind of whip-smart comedy. Just don’t expect it to compare favourably to something like Orfeo, which is Paul Thomas Anderson level, as opposed to Croweesque good entertainment reaching for substance, which is what this is.

  3. KevinfromCanada August 19, 2014 at 11:25 am

    I am pretty sure that I like your review better than I would like the novel. I have been bouncing back and forth on whether to read this — your perceptive thoughts have pushed me back into “no go” territory, but I may give it a go if it makes the shortlist.

    We should also probably note that this is not the first Booker finalist to feature a chimp/monkey/ape — Me Cheeta made the list a few years back. That one amused me but I am afraid that it looks like Fowler’s amusing bits are more than offset by the kind of authorial overkill that has been driving me nuts lately.

  4. Lee Monks August 19, 2014 at 1:03 pm

    Thanks, Kevin. Well, with your review of Joshua Ferris’ latest in mind (and I’m guessing ‘authorial overkill’ is directly relevant?) I’d definitely urge caution!

  5. juliemcl August 27, 2014 at 8:31 am

    So, I read the book! It was an enjoyable and easy (quick) read, and also as an animal-rights-activist sympathizer I’m glad I did, but it really wasn’t my cup of tea as material for reading. I much more prefer a calmer contemplative read, with nuanced psychological components (something like Tessa Hadley’s ‘Clever Girl’ or Alice McDermott’s ‘Someone’), and not the sort of hyperactive prose that Lee posits above as the mark of certain particularly North American writers. Oh, I like a good comic novel too sometimes, but this wasn’t really that, nor trying to be. Also, it was a bit mawkish at times as Lee pointed out, but did elicit wetness from my eyes a couple times as I suppose it was meant to.

    My only other two criticisms are: 1) some of the characters are quite two-dimensional (Harlow, Lowell). I couldn’t really get a sense of them as fully fleshed out people. They seem to stay on the periphery whereas we are meant to think they are central to our protagonist’s life and experience. 2) at times I felt like I was reading a YA book, especially in the first third before Fern is introduced. I have nothing against YA but I’ve read things with young narrators before that definitely did not give me that sense. I don’t know what else to say about that other than that feeling ties together with the cardboard-cutout nature of the characters to make me feel that in the main it wasn’t subtle or nuanced or below-the-surface, which is also what I think Lee’s conclusion was but more eloquently put.

    You know, never having been interested in the Booker before now (which I’m guessing is perhaps why they’ve opened it up to American authors, to capture the American reader like me), I’m now quite interested in how books get chosen for the longlist. Or is that all shrouded in secrecy? I did look at the official criteria for eligibility on the official Booker website, but that doesn’t really answer the question of the process of coming up with the longlist. Do the five or six judges plow through mountains of books? All read the same ones? Then do they have a series of meetings to whittle it down? Talk about each book and its merits? How tortured is this process? Do books with a particular kind of “message” have more of a chance? How do books that haven’t come out yet make it onto the list? If anyone can point me to an article or something, even an older one, that speaks to any of this I’d sure appreciate it. I’m perplexed about how this book particularly made it onto the list. It was good, but… all the things I said above.

  6. Lee Monks August 27, 2014 at 11:54 am

    It seems we had very similar readings, Julie. And what do the Booker judges know anyway?! We’re right!

    I think, in theory at least, all the judges are meant to read all the entries. I think that’s a general stipulation. I doubt very much whether any of the judges follow that line, and I certainly hope not, for their sake: a dreadful book will surely reveal it’s hand within 50 pages, at which point sanity surely suggests it, and any similar tomes, get flung into the fire. There is surely no way – and furthermore, no need – to read every page submitted. I’d hedge a sizeable bet on a fair bit of audiobook juggling and kindle flipping.

    I think certain books will be ‘favoured’ for all kinds of mercurial reasons not entirely pertaining to their absolute quality and I think, if I’m right, that cheapens the award massively. The book reviewed above is not of the same literary quality – a factor I think should always be paramount – as some of the books left off the list. I like it a lot, but that’s a fact: it is not as good as the Joseph Boyden book, to use one example. But: it’s making a supposedly provocative point and you can see that certain non-literary factors are considered the equal of its merit as a piece of writing. Which I just don’t agree with. This is top-level fodder, for me, and no more. The Ferris is of a similar stock. There is one book on the longlist which is, I’d argue, not good at all but it’s ‘dystopian’ and ticks a few boxes…rant over…

  7. juliemcl August 27, 2014 at 7:48 pm

    Thanks, Lee. I just noticed that I said I put it more eloquently than you. Sorry, I was beyond tired when I posted this. I meant the opposite. Your review was much more eloquent than my comment, obviously!

  8. Lee Monks August 28, 2014 at 6:25 am

    I knew what you meant, Julie – and don’t be so sure!

  9. Max Cairnduff September 26, 2014 at 12:51 pm

    It sounds to me the literary equivalent of an Oscar movie. Technically well made, lots of emotional content, an underlying seriousness of point, but not surprising, not challenging.

    I think sometimes books are seen as literary fiction just because they aren’t another kind of more identifiable fiction. They’re not horror fiction, or science fiction, or romantic fiction or historical fiction so they must be literary fiction. A kind of bibliophilic god of the gaps.What they are of course is general fiction. Entertainments as Graham Greene would have said. Nothing wrong with that, but I tend to prefer my entertainments more out and out entertaining, my serious fiction more out and out serious.

  10. juliemcl September 27, 2014 at 12:18 am

    I agree, Max! Well said. I’ve read too many in what you call the ‘general fiction’ category lately for my taste, and I wish there was an easier way of telling the difference from reviews. But I wonder: is what you are really describing just the divide between so-so work vs. the more excellent type, something that transcends the subject matter?

  11. Lee Monks September 27, 2014 at 3:46 am

    Your opening paragraph sums it up, Max. It’s exactly that. Take the chimp stuff out and it’d be quickly forgotten. The dialogue is often excellent but the idea that it might win the Booker Prize is an unedifying prospect.

    It’s not literary fiction. It’s water cooler fiction.

  12. Lee Monks September 27, 2014 at 3:50 am

    Juliemcl: the thing about this is that it never tries to transcend a kind of ‘Oprah’ vibe. It wants to sell copies. It has no designs on the big prizes, I felt. It wants to be in big piles at the supermarket with soccer moms tutting over the twist kind of thing.

  13. juliemcl September 27, 2014 at 4:43 am

    Oh, yes, Lee. I agree that this book doesn’t transcend, nor try to. I think it is definitely in the so-so or general category, as opposed to the excellent/literary. I was just wondering in my comment above whether the dichotomy between general and literary that Max posited couldn’t also be described in terms of less good vs. more good (better written, more transcendent) – just something for debate. Now, it’s the middle of the night so I’m not even sure I know what I’m talking about any more!

  14. Lee Monks September 27, 2014 at 5:07 am

    It probably could – it’s a book that aims low and hits its target very adeptly.

  15. Max Cairnduff October 21, 2014 at 4:25 pm

    Julie, sorry for the slow reply – holiday. I think it’s a maybe. Sometimes the difference is merely quality, but I think sometimes too there’s a difference in ambition. A good pulp crime novel sets out to entertain, and has no pretensions to being literary fiction as a rule. I think a lot of general fiction sets out too to entertain, and doesn’t really aspire to being literary fiction which is fine.

    Sometimes it does and fails. Sometimes who knows? It’s not as if after all any of these categories exist in the world, we create them and use them as descriptive shortcuts. So I think yes, sometimes general fiction is just fiction that’s not as well written as literary fiction, and no, sometimes general fiction is different in kind not just in quality to literary fiction.

    Perhaps the test is, can we conceive of a book which is clearly literary fiction, but which isn’t actually very good? I suspect we can, but it’s not necessarily a clear cut answer.

  16. Max Cairnduff October 21, 2014 at 4:27 pm

    Forgot to add, love the phrase water cooler fiction. I think it does capture something.

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