Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Karen Joy Fowler Suprise and How to Approach Taking About "We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves," Especially Because We're Hosting an Event with Her Next Monday, September 23.

The publisher went out of their way to keep the twist off the advance copy that I read. It's not in the blurbs either. But the truth of the matter is that Karen Joy Fowler's We are All Completely Beside Ourselves came out in June and I think I'm now writing to folks who weren't intrigued enough by the "we're not going to tell you what happens" pitch to buy the book without knowing what's going on. So we're going to tell you what's going on.

Karen Joy Fowler (photo credit Brett Hall Jones) is at Ragdale for a multi-author event, much like the one Gail Tsukiyama participated in last year. And like Tsukiyama, she's taking advantage of her central Chicago location to do a mini-midwestern tour. (The public event, by the way, is Friday, September 27 and also features such literary stars as Ruth Ozeki and Lauren Groff). You can get more info on their website.

So how did reviewers try to address the twist? Maureen Corrigan on NPR's Fresh Air warned of spoilers, but how could anyone who was interested in the book turn off the broadcast if they were interested in the book? Corrigan called the book "smart and exquisitely sad" but also noted it was "charming and comical."

Barbara Kingsolver in The New York Times Book Review notes that "The last writers to be unscathed by spoilers were probably the Victorians, who pounded out the likes of Great Expectations in weekly, serialized installments. So she basically says, "I shouldn't tell you but I have to." Her raves notes that the novel can be a bit madcap, but in the end, proclaims "this is a story of Everyfamily in which loss engraves relationships, truth is a soulful stalker and coming-of-age means facing down the mirror, recognizing the shape-shifting notion of self."

Well I think all the Karen Joy Fowler fans who were petrified about having a secret given away have all read the book. And can I also note that there is something that looks awfully simian-like swinging from the tree of the book jacket. So now I think I have to tell you the twist, even though there are many novels, such as Little Bee and The Story of a Marriage, where I was able to play the "not gonna give it away" game. 

Here's Chris Barton in the Los Angeles Times:
"Rosemary Cooke's personal life has put the broken in 'broken family.' Her sister Fern disappeared when she was five, and her brother Lowell  ran away by the time she was 11. She herself has abandoned Bloomington, Indiana for a college life at UC Davis where she has left her past behind. Relations with her parents are strained. Nobody knows her terrible secret. Nobody's going to call her names now.  Then her brother fleetingly shows up, on the run from the law. Will this exposure destroy her life once again, or will it be the impetus to slowly put her life back together?"

Yes, Rosemary's sister Fern is a chimpanzee, and Rosie was part of an experiment devised by her psychology professor father. Her brother? He's on the run from the law because he's rumored to be part of ALF, the Animal Liberation Front.You see, the family, or at least the kids, really did see Fern as one of them, and her disappearance, which forms the heart of the story, feels to them like a kidnapping.

To the outside world, they are just another family of science freaks. Is it any different from Geek Love, about the parents who give their kids drugs to make them freak show worthy? It reminded me of the rash of books about conjoined twins. In some strange way, these books all try to contemplate normality.  I thought of two other recent novels, Ape House, by Sara Gruen, which I read, and The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, by Benjamin Hale, which I did not, though I did go to a meet-the-author dinner that was arranged to get us to read the book. And then there's Peter H√łeg's 1996 novel, The Woman and the Ape.

There are obviously differences between the novels. As Sharon notes, in Ape House, the protagnoist was a scientist, whereas here Rosie is one of the test subjects. And while her relationship was familial, it certainly didn't match the level of intimacy of Benjamin Hale's novel.

In the end, of course, Karen Joy Fowler's uses this unique setup to tell a story about ourselves, and not necessarily about chimpanzees. But isn't this what good literature does? The story must remain the same, as truth doesn't change, but we need to dress it up in different clothing to make it fresh. In Fern's case, she liked a tartan skirt with a safety pin clasp.

So did the book work? It certainly wasn't the bestseller of The Jane Austen Book Club. But I think that's just the Jane Austen factor. Cathleen Schine also had a jump onto the bestseller lists with The Three Weissmanns of Westport, and then returned back to a more earthly trajectory for Fin and Lady. It's a tough crossroads for a writer. You know you won't get the same literary reviews the second time you ape Austen, but you simply won't hold onto some of those newfound fans if you don't.

And maybe it's the animal thing. I don't think Sara Gruen's Ape House followed up Water for Elephants as well as, say, The Mermaid Chair followed up The Secret Life of Bees. Hey, I'm not writing or publishing novels, so for me, it's more sport than anything.

And when did I start equating bestsellerdom with literary achievement? Shame on me! I have friends like Michael in Boston who has been a huge fan of Karen Joy Fowler since her first novel, Sarah Canary. And Jane Hamilton is a big fan too, which is why she stepped outside her comfort zone to put together this mini-midwest Fowler tour. I wound up enjoying We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves as well, as have several Friends of Boswell who've stopped by.

So in the end, all I can do is encourage you to come to our event with the charming Karen Joy Fowler. It's next Monday, September 23, 7 pm. 

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