Reading: Karen Joy Fowler — We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Finishing this last night outside the Kneipe on the corner, bartender brings me beer (Hefeweizen!), looks at the cover, says, “Sieht sehr deprimiert…” “Naja, nicht wirklich, aber…”

Recommended to me by Debbie Notkin of the Tiptree Award.

Despite that, it’s not sci-fi, or fantasy.

The cover is very yellow. Very yellow.

I want to like it more than I do.

I think the prime reason it ‘resonates’ with so many people, why it’s so popular is because the readers think it’s a metaphor, and from that perspective it’s about them and their sad, middle-class childhoods and sad, middle-class lives. It’s not.

Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, somewhat similar, is not about trans or intersex children, but uses them to tell a story about cisgender people feeling different. Stand-ins, metaphors, freaks. The difference is Middlesex in fact written as this (I read an interview with Eugenides once where he said as much), whereas We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves readers can easily think this. It’s not. Or at least I think largely not. Not the aim, even if that does slip in.

If Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory was actually the story of a chimpanzee adopted into a human family, told from the perspective of the chimpanzee, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is the story told from the side of the rest of the family. Which is to say also it’s closer to The Wasp Factory than to Middlesex in writing and story, and as well, there’s very few people who would want to see Frank as a metaphor for their childhood and teen years.

Also, Middlesex is fucking bollocks and about as far from the humanity of The Wasp Factory as it’s possible to be, it’s a cynical piece of rubbish I dislike even more because I used to think it was pretty good. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves for the moment I still think is pretty impressive, though complicated. Flawed perhaps. Ah fuck it, it’s so easy to say ‘flawed’ and then we all nod and smile like we understand each other.

It’s like Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. It’s the parable of the reality of Eating Animals. It’s an ugly reality.

So, sitting drinking my Hefeweizen, thinking, thinking. There’s this thing called Fermi’s paradox, which is basically, “Where the fuck is everyone?” In the universe, I mean. The galaxy even, nearby. Two to four hundred billion stars, most with planetary systems, more than enough time for life to evolve, so where is everyone? Lots of answers to that absence, quite a few which can be ignored because they start from anthropomorphic principles (“We make masses of noise across the electromagnetic spectrum, more evolved extraterrestrial life should make even more noise (blah fucking Type-II or -III Kardashev blah), we don’t see any, therefore no extraterrestrials.”)

How about they’re scared shitless of us?

Reading Eating Animals and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves together (maybe interspersing with Wasp Factory) would confirm my hypothesis. At least for me.

There’s a very interesting legal case in the US at the moment, habeas corpus for two research chimpanzees. The greater question and issue here is what constitutes ‘human’? Because human rights accrue only to what is human. You can only habeas a corpus if it’s human.

I imagine aliens observing us with horror.

Noam Chomsky (the reason I gave up linguistics almost as soon as I started was reading his stuff on deep structure and knowing immediately I’d never be anything more than average) wrote that aliens would comprehend all our languages as more or less the same, one no more exceptional than another. I think they would observe life similarly. They would see how we dominate, torture, destroy other life forms and be disgusted. Terrified.

Imagine us, with our so finely honed sense of exceptionalism, our easy ability to regard one life as human, deserving of the privilege of human rights, another—because it looks, behaves, seems different—not, our easy ability to inflict barbarity on those others, our habit towards violence and using every new tool towards violent ends, imagine us, as we are, with the ability to travel between the stars. Imagine the genocides we would inflict.

Ja, so, the Hefeweizen has quite a kick, served in half-litre glasses.

A quarter of the way through, Rosemary, the narrator, says something like, “So you’ve probably already worked out my sister Fern is a chimpanzee.” I was like, “What? Fuck! No!” I’d even read the bit at the end of the book, after the acknowledgements, were KJ talks about chimpanzees in the ’60s and ’70s in the US growing up in human families, vivisection on chimpanzees in labs, Animal Liberation Front rescuing those chimpanzees, chimpanzees in the wild. Fern is a chimpanzee? Faaark! Totally didn’t see that one coming. (No sarcasm there, I’m serious.) There were a couple of other times Rose was like, “You’ve probably guessed by now…” Nahpe, totally didn’t.

I’d feel more comfortable if people read it literally, than pretended it was all about them. Sure, it’s about family, domesticity, growing up in the ’70s to ’90s in America, all that. But it’s not. It’s about an academic university family who adopt a chimpanzee and raise it as the almost twin sibling of their newborn daughter, the ethics of this, the ramifications over decades for the whole family, chimp included (or especially), the changing attitudes to using animals for research, to understanding our own animality as much as animals’ humanity, the legal, social, philosophical shifts in this. I cannot seriously believe people can twist that into a metaphor. But I suspect that’s why it’s as popular as it is, even though the real story is as horrific as The Wasp Factory. The real story is we are horrific.