Tuesday, January 21, 2014

On Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

[Note: it takes me a while, but eventually I do discuss the book itself, I promise. Also there will be spoilers, etc. Oh, and since I'm disclaiming, I know that I get very repetitive at times with certain words. There seemed no way around it.]

My ambivalence towards Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves began with the title. It's probably unfair, but I have an automatic aversion to titles like these: clever appropriations of common expressions or phrases revealing, merely by their placement as title, hitherto, I guess, unimagined depths of potential meaning—Raymond Carver-tested, MFA workshop-approved kinds of titles. Such a title creates a particular expectation that the very tastefully clever jacket design reinforces, as does everything from the careful selection of blurbers to the tastefully enraptured jacket flap copy to the author bio that notes that all five of her previous novels have been New York Times Notable Books to, once we actually open up the book, the quietly confident typeface in which the novel is printed.

I bring all this up not out of pettiness (I hope) but for two reasons, both related to the fact that, though there is much that is wonderful in this novel, there is also much about which I have deep reservations. The first reason is that I suspect that this split in my reaction arises out of the duel between what seems to me to be, on the one hand, a desire on Fowler's part to live in and be accepted by the tastefully clever world projected by this title, this jacket, these blurbers, and on the other, an equally strong urge in her to fight against this world, to lay bare all that it covers up, excludes, looks down upon, misses. The second reason is that to some extent I'm not certain how much of my reservation is merely a hallucination brought on by all these accoutrements. Do I really have a problem with the book, or merely with—for example—the font? If I am to be honest, this type of question is often much harder for me to answer than I'd like; what follows is my attempt to figure it out.

L. Timmel Duchamp notes that, whether or not we feel that this novel is "science fiction," whatever that means, it is absolutely in dialogue with, part of the conversation created by, the tradition of feminist science fiction. She is of course absolutely right; the links between this novel and, for example, "Rachel in Love" by Pat Murphy (who Fowler thanks in her acknowledgments) or Fowler's own earlier "What I Didn't See" (and from there to Tiptree's "The Women Men Don't See") are merely the most obvious, and familiarity with these works (and no doubt with countless others I am not familiar with) enriches the experience of Fowler's novel immensely.* But I think it important too to note that this novel, both in its presentation-as-marketable-object and in itself as a work, positions itself in a very different social space. According to the flap copy, Fowler's "progenitors could be said to be" not Murphy or Tiptree but "England's Angela Carter and Russia's Nikolai Gogol—writers who made old tales new again and who fearlessly incorporated demons and devils, madmen and holy fools, into their subversive fictions."

*I will not be talking much directly about the feminism of this novel in this essay, which should not be taken as meaning that the feminism is not there, or that it is not important; rather that a) others can write and have written about it much better than I, and b) I am here concerned primarily with my reservations about the novel, most of which are not located in the feminism per se.

I don't say they're wrong (I haven't yet read either Carter or Gogol, so really I wouldn't know), and I bring this up not to make some kind of genre-snot point, some kind of "if it's good it isn't sf" sarcasm. But I think the anonymous Marion Wood G. P. Putnam's Sons Random Penguin employee's decision to name these two writers out of all the others who "could be said to be" Fowler's "progenitors" is not without significance—nor is their decision to identify the countries of origin, simultaneously harking back oddly to a past era of artistic nationalism that seems a bit irresponsible to invoke now and attempting to establish an international pedigree for this very specifically American novel.* We are being encouraged to read Fowler in one context rather than another, and the problem is not that the one context is "better" than the other, or "more right," but that the action of the rather than is to restrict, diminish, domesticate. We are told by the authorities at Marion Wood G. P. Putnam's Sons Random Penguin that Carter and Gogol's "fictions"—and by extension Fowler's as well—are "subversive." But if this is the case, what could they be subverting but precisely (if metonymously) the authority and authoritativeness of Random Penguin itself?** I spot a problem.

*I may seem to be contradicting myself here but I don't think I am.
**I am also uncertain what is "fearless" about incorporating demons and devils etc. into fiction, and even more uncertain why such incorporation is relevant to the novel at hand, which does no such thing.

I would consider all of this merely unfortunate advertising, akin to the tv ads that made Eyes Wide Shut out to be some kind of sexy romp, did the novel itself not seem to wish so much to occupy precisely the position being carved out for it—despite its ambitions to deal with issues simply inaccessible from that position. It is these ambitions that make the novel very much worth our attention despite its problems; looked at another way, it is these ambitions that make it necessary to talk about the problems.

The novel takes the form of the reminiscences of Rosemary Cooke, our first-person narrator. From the very beginning we sense that she will be different from most such: things seem a little more out of her grasp, and she has none of the confidence of most first person narrators. The first page sees her referring to a home movie for evidence of what she was like as a child, rather than simply asserting that she was that way, and with no mention of whether she herself remembers being like the child portrayed in the movie. And as things go on, her uncertainty becomes more and more explicit, indeed becomes more and more one of the central issues in the novel. For this narrator asks herself—and us—questions that most first person narrators cannot afford to ask and avoid at all costs. These are very specifically writers' questions. They do not, of course, always come literally in the form of questions, but this passage in which they do might suffice to give some idea of what I'm talking about:

Still, there are reasons for suspicion. I was only five. How is it possible that I remember, as I seem to, a handful of conversations word for word, the exact song on the radio, the particular clothes I was wearing? Why are there so many scenes I remember from impossible vantage points, so many things I picture from above, as if I'd climbed the curtains and was looking down on my family?
These questions do not come up in most novels, in which the narrator simply tells us: I said, she said, I did, she did, with a certainty that is quite alien to the way we actually live and remember our lives. For memory is not certain, nor is it always accessible. It comes at us in vague flashes, conflicting and contradictory, unreliable, unverifiable, easily altered. And the novel deals very heavily too in two particular ways in which memory can be distorted: first from too much reinforcement (at one point Rosemary repeats for us a story she has told so often that "I honestly don't know anymore if I really remember it or only remember how to tell it"), and second from no reinforcement at all in the face of repression, family silence, and denial ("So who knows what revelries, what romps my memories have taken with so little corroboration to restrain them?"). The book, then, is about elusiveness. And not just the elusiveness of memory, but also of language, of storytelling and of our reasons for engaging in it, of self, of other, of humanity—all of these elusivenesses, of course, being linked. In talking about elusiveness it is often wonderful—but there is a problem here: for though it is about elusiveness, the book itself is not elusive. It is often evasive, which is interesting in itself, but is not the same thing (more on this later). Let us take, for example, a passage about language. In what follows Russell is an older boy who had helped Rosemary's older brother break into the Cooke family's former home, and Fern is (we'll just say for now) the third Cooke sibling, who has been taken away from the family—a fact which the child Rosemary both knows and yet cannot quite comprehend.
          A few days later, the cops busted Russell. Grandma Donna told me that he'd thrown a Halloween party at the farmhouse. Every window in the place had been broken, she said, and an underage girl had spent a night in the hospital.
          Language is such an imprecise vehicle I sometimes wonder why we bother with it. Here is what I heard: that maybe Fern had reached, like a poltergeist, across time and space and destroyed the home in which we'd all lived. A few broken windows might have signified a party to me. Fern and I had thrown a croquet ball through one once and had good fun doing it in spite of what came after. But every window in the place? That didn't sound larkish. That had the precision and persistence of fury.
          Here's what Grandma Donna thought she was telling me: that I was not too young to understand the dangers of mixing alcohol and drugs. That she just hoped she'd never live to see the day I had to have my stomach pumped. That such a thing would break our mother's broken heart.
And so a chapter ends. Some of this, particularly in the second paragraph, is very fine. The line about language being "such an imprecise vehicle" is marvelous, and Rosemary's reconstruction of her childhood thought processes is evocative and, in its literalism and logic, devastatingly recognizable. But even in the first two paragraphs something feels off for me, something feels a little too straightforward, too easy—something reinforced by the wholly inappropriate third paragraph, in which we are given "what Grandma Donna thought she was telling me." Oh really? How does Rosemary know? For that matter, how does Fowler know? To be sure, we are free to think about and wonder why Rosemary thinks she knows this, and may even be encouraged to do so by what comes before it. But nothing in the novel requires us to do it, and her exegesis of what-Grandma-Donna-really-meant "seems right" to such an extent that it even runs counter to such questioning. This apparently self-evident correctness, presented with such quiet authority (strengthened by both the high emotional tone and the immediate chapter break), discourages us from asking of the novel the very questions Rosemary insists upon asking.

Much the same happens with memory. A few pages after the just-quoted passage, we read: "When I was about eight, I recovered what seemed to be a memory." This is interesting. The verb, "recovered," tells us that despite her equivocal "seemed to be" Rosemary on some fundamental level feels this as memory. And regardless of whether this recovered seeming memory is of something that "really happened" or not, we have entered in this sentence into the peculiar realm of recalling recollection; the adult Rosemary is remembering the experience of, long ago, remembering something that happened (or perhaps did not) longer ago still. "It came one piece at a time, like a puzzle I had to fit together." But again something seems amiss; in that blandly narratorial "When I was about eight" introducing a simple, past-tense, declarative statement, we have no sense of the recursiveness of remembering a memory; surely, we feel, the adult Rosemary's recollection of herself at eight should be, perhaps not as elusive as that child's memory of her earlier childhood, but more elusive than this? But in what follows the work of fitting the puzzle together has been done already, and instead of a memory of a memory of something that may not have happened, we get an anecdote. "We were on a narrow country road.... My father stopped for a cat...." To be sure, a phrase here and there periodically informs us that we are in memory rather than event ("I remembered my shock"), but though the memory of eight-year-old Rosemary is in question, the memory of adult Rosemary is not. That verb, "remembered," is always in the indicative.

We are thus again, as with the passage above about language, given Rosemary's uncertainty, rather than living through it with her—in much the same way that we are given the then-this-happened-and-then-this-happened of any ordinary novel.

I said before that the novel, though it is not elusive, is evasive. Normally I find evasiveness (as for example in its most egregious form, the "surprise ending") coy and annoying, feeling that what so much energy is being expended on evading is what should be the very substance of the work. But here things are different, as for Fowler the evasiveness itself is that substance, and here I find the book much more successful than in its dealings with elusiveness. Though at times there is a residual annoying coyness to the novel (though whether this residual resides primarily in the book or in me, I cannot say), on the whole Fowler transforms her evasions into something quite interesting.

Take for example the nature of Rosemary's sister, Fern. Throughout the first 70-odd pages, Rosemary talks about Fern as a sister no different from any other (except of course in the sense that she is one individual person, not any other), though hints creep in that something unusual is going on: references to places—a movie theater, say—that Fern cannot go, activities she cannot take part in; casual mentions of "the grad students" that were always around in their early childhood. These hints take almost the same form as those that lead up to a surprise ending (though perhaps a bit more obtrusive than those usually try to be), but fortunately Fowler has other, better concerns than merely surprising us.

Fern is a chimpanzee. Her species is revealed to us on page 77, almost exactly a quarter of the way through the novel—thus allowing the remaining three quarters to do what suprise-ending stories are too cowardly and lazy to do, namely to deal with the consequences of what is revealed—and in the passage following the revelation Rosemary makes clear her motives:

          Some of you will have figured that out already. Others may feel it was irritatingly coy of me to have withheld Fern's essential simian-ness for so long.
          In my defense, I had my reasons. I spent the first eighteen years of my life defined by this one fact, that I was raised with a chimpanzee. I had to move halfway across the country in order to leave that fact behind. It's never going to be the first thing I share with someone.
          But much, much more important, I wanted you to see how it really was. I tell you Fern is a chimp and, already, you aren't thinking of her as my sister. You're thinking instead that we loved her as if she were some kind of pet. After Fern left, Grandma Donna told Lowell and me that when our dog Tamara Press had died, our mother had been devastated—just the way she was now, being the implication. Lowell reported this to our father and we were all so offended Grandma Donna had to give it right up.
          Fern was not the family dog. She was Lowell's little sister, his shadow, his faithful sidekick.
I fell, to some extent into both the "some" and the "others" camps that Rosemary lays out in the first paragraph: I did figure it out (in large part thanks to the cover illustration, which depicts Fern hanging from a tree), and I did, as I've mentioned already, find the withholding irritatingly coy. But I was won over as Rosemary described her reasons. To begin with, the mere fact of any explanation at all is unusual, for a standard fictional "surprise", whether at the end or not, cannot afford to explain its reasons for being left a surprise any more than a standard first-person narrator can afford to ask herself how she remembers the dialogue so precisely.

And just as with those previously-discussed questions, Rosemary's reasons (possibly excluding the "never going to be the first thing I share" one) are, once again, writers' reasons. In this case, Rosemary (and Fowler) are struggling with one of the central problems facing a writer, namely how to convey accurately the "reality" one seeks to convey. To do so is of course impossible, and in explaining why she has held back the information that Fern is a chimpanzee this long Rosemary is in effect telling us which course to failure she ultimately decided was least untenable, and why. Her candidness is, in context, deeply moving, and when she goes on immediately to describe more fully than before her experience of having a chimpanzee as a sister, to a certain extent it does feel as though she's been successful; we begin to understand what this alien experience really was, truly to see Fern as "not the family dog", and so on; and though these passages can never really "take us there", their being ushered in by the acknowledgment of the impossibility gives them a power they could not have had otherwise, creating a shift in perspective even in those of us who did "figure it out" that is, again, deeply moving.

Similar clusters of reasoning and feeling surround other of the novel's evasivenesses, as for example regarding what Lowell, Rosemary's fugitive brother, did. This is all very powerful. But I wonder if Fowler has on some level confused the evasiveness, which she deals with remarkably, with the elusiveness that her material requires but is not a living presence in it. The two are not the same, but such is the power of the novel as a form (i.e., The Novel, the "genreless" genre), able to consume, digest, and incorporate anything that it encounters, that both are subsumed into one smoothed-out thing—with evasiveness, naturally the more graspable of the two, retaining much more of its own character than the elusiveness is able to. As I mentioned way back at the beginning of this essay, I sense in Fowler a powerful urge to fight against her form, to fight against The Novel and its all-consuming appetite; but in this case at least I find that she has not fought hard enough, or that she has allowed a conflicting urge—to give in, both to her form and to the cultural position she finds herself in at this point in her career—to take over.

Intimately related to all of this is the question of this particular novel's sfness, the "Is it or isn't it?" question that, as a question, ultimately I am not interested even in asking, let alone answering. But sf or not, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is obviously relevant to the sf reader in a number of ways, from the fact that Fowler has written much before it that is "incontestably" sf, to the dialogue Duchamp identifies between it and previous works of feminist sf, to—my immediate interest—the formal issues within it. Specifically, I am referring to the way it deals with the tension I have identified as central (though not exclusive) to sf: that between explication and the inexplicable. For this is a novel that aims itself squarely at the heart of modern science's moral, philosophical, and indeed methodological failures.

Fowler here displays a typically sfnal interest in the forms of explication, the modes of language we use to convey information, to explain things; like all good sf, her novel implicitly understands that mixing these particular kinds of stories into what we're more used to thinking of as a story performs strange transformations on both, carrying the potential of tremendous power as these modes clash, cooperate, engage in dialogue with one another.

          Episodic memory has certain subjective features. It comes with something called "a feeling of pastness," and also a feeling of confidence, however misplaced, in the accuracy of recollection. These interiorities can never be observed in another species. Doesn't mean they aren't there. Doesn't mean they are.
          Other species do show evidence of functional episodic memory—the retention of the what, where, and when of individual experiences. The data has been particularly persuasive with regard to scrub jays.
          Humans are actually not so good at remembering the when. Extremely good at remembering the who, though. I would guess chimps, social as they are, might be the same.
          Does Fern remember us? Does she remember but not recognize us as the people she remembers? We certainly don't look the way we used to, and I don't know if Fern understands that children grow up, that humans grow old, same as chimps. I can find no studies that suggest what a chimp might remember over a period of twenty-two years.
          Still, I believe Fern knows who we are. The evidence is compelling, if not conclusive. Only the exacting ghost of my father keeps me from insisting on it.
This is, again, very fine. But I find, and here I have difficulty putting my finger on my objection, that something is off. Perhaps it is the very fineness of the writing. Perhaps it is the overly frequent and too-precise paragraph breaking—for me this passage, like many elsewhere in the novel, would gain much in power were it one single paragraph. Whatever the specific technical causes, what I feel here and in many similar passages is The Novel smoothing over the disjuncture between the "scientific" sentences ("The data has* been particularly persuasive...") and the "story" sentences ("...the exacting ghost of my father..."), in a way that the sf I love and that moves me—whether the na├»ve works of a Clarke or a Stone or an Asimov or the more self-aware efforts of a Delany or a Russ or, indeed, a Tiptree—leave rough. Novels like Rendezvous with Rama or Trouble on Triton, short stories** like "Nightfall" or "Painwise", live in the tensions and the contradictions; they leave the seams visible and do not allow us to forget them.

*Incidentally—"have", surely?
**And here I feel it is time for a periodic reminder that all forms of narrative have, in contemporary culture, been so thoroughly "novelized" for so long that when I talk about The Novel, most of the same or at least very similar issues apply as well to, e.g., short stories.

Lorrie Moore, whose fussily perfect and witty stories with nothing to say usually repel me, has one truly excellent story: "People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk," originally published in that hotbed of fussily perfect and witty repulsion, The New Yorker, later collected in her Birds of America. In this remarkable story, "the Mother"—a writer for publications like The New Yorker, indeed a writer much like Moore herself—finds that, in the face of a sudden life-altering disaster (the discovery that "the Baby" has cancer), she can no longer go on pretending that her enterprise as a writer is in any way adequate, in any way acceptable. How can I go on forming these perfect sentences, she asks herself, these clever turns of phrase? How can I go on creating these finely observed portraits of nothing at all, when what matters, when something happens that really matters, is ultimately unsayable, certainly unwriteable? And yet it seems that, as much as she struggles against it, as much as she finds herself unable and unwilling, she can (like anyone) only be the writer she knows how to be (and anyway, as "the Father" points out, "We are going to need the money"), and so we see her writing those perfect and witty sentences like "She has already started to wear sunglasses indoors, like a celebrity widow," even going so far as to give the story not one but two of those Raymond Carver-tested MFA workshop-approved titles I started this essay complaining about — this story that is precisely about how inappropriate this detached perfection is in the face of a life and a world that involves us all intimately and messily whether we want it to or not. The story is devastating.

I was tempted to say that it is so powerfully moving because it "strikes the right balance" between these contradictory impulses (not so far off from Beckett's "can't go on, I'll go on"), but that phrase is I think exactly wrong. "People Like That " is so moving precisely because it does not strike a balance, because it lives in the impossibility of balancing. And because in this story Moore has shown us that she is aware of this impossibility, all of her other stories, or at least all those that I have read, none of which show an ounce of this awareness, none of which leave any room for self-questioning or self-doubt, all of which seem blithely certain that there is nothing wrong with what they are doing, are not just bad stories but a betrayal, a lazy and cynical admission that Moore is willing to coast merely on her prodigious but empty technical skill, even though she has shown that she knows such coasting is irresponsible and unacceptable.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, I find, tries too hard to balance what Moore refused to balance in "People Like That", that she refuses to acknowledge even exists in her other stories. Fowler has always known that these problems exist; I admit I am new to her writing and have as yet read very little of it, but the handful of earlier short stories I have read deal very much in these problems, as indeed this new novel does as well. But now it is as though Fowler wants to have it both ways, to find some middle ground between the stark knowledge of "People Like That" and the breezy ignorance of the rest of Moore's career.* And though her efforts in this direction are emphatically not a betrayal, and though there is much, so very much, to admire in this novel, I nevertheless find it all very distressing.

*To be super-clear, I'm not suggesting that Moore and Fowler's careers are in any way linked; I don't even know if Fowler has ever read Moore, and it's irrelevant.

The series of questions I blockquoted oh so terribly long ago ("How is it possible that I remember, as I seem to, a handful of conversations word for word" et al) actually contains one more that I originally left off, one which may seem at first to be taking us out of the metafictional realm of the rest of the paragraph and back into, as it were, the fiction proper: "And why is there one thing that I remember distinctly, living color and surround-sound, but believe with all my heart never occurred?" But this is perhaps the one question out of the series that cuts closest to the heart of the fundamental bad faith of all fiction. Because of course none of the events of the novel ever occurred—despite Fowler's rendering them distinctly, in living color and surround-sound, and make us believe with all our hearts did happen.

But this is complicated by Fowler's political concerns. For there is factual—even propagandistic, if such a word is usable in a non-pejorative sense—information in this book. Rosemary, and behind her Fowler, is terribly and righteously concerned that we become aware of some of the horrors committed in the name of "science," with the backing of industry. We are introduced to forms of animal testing, for example, that are horribly real. But Fowler cannot find it in herself to fight against the homogenization of The Novel as hard as she sometimes seems to want to. And as she works so hard at touching every sentence equally into life, the "political content" of her novel becomes, as Richard puts it in a fine meditation on the presence of racism in Flannery O'Connor's fiction, contained by her novel. It's a thing that happens between the covers, the same as any of the other witty or funny or sad or moving incidents or observations made in the course of its 308 pages; and when we turn the last of those pages and put the book down, so too do we put down its politics.

It is of course asking too much of Fowler to expect her to solve the problem of The Novel's containment single-handed. But for every step she takes toward acknowledging the problems, toward examining them and living with them, she seems to take one or sometimes two steps in the other direction. Her writing is extremely good. I very much enjoyed her language, her wit. How could we not enjoy such turns of phrase as when Rosemary describes her first college roommate as being "appallingly gregarious—so outgoing she was practically incoming," or when CIA men come by her apartment, telling her that her aggressively unhelpful landlord has applied for a job at the agency, "which struck me as a terrible idea no matter how you looked at it, and I still gave him the best recommendation I could make up on the spot. 'I never see the guy,' I said, 'unless he wants to be seen.'" This is genuinely funny; Fowler is similarly skilled in moments of pain and deep feeling. Her novel truly is written in living color and surround-sound; her efforts in these directions are sometimes astounding. But it is in these efforts, indeed in their notable success, that my problems with the novel lie. The jacket flap states, forthright and certain, that this "is Fowler's most accomplished book". I fear that it is.

No comments: