We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
From the New York Times–bestselling author of The Jane Austen Book Club, the story of an American family, middle class in middle America, ordinary in every way but one. But that exception is the beating heart of this extraordinary novel.
Meet the Cooke family: Mother and Dad, brother Lowell, sister Fern, and our narrator, Rosemary, who begins her story in the middle. She has her reasons. “I spent the first eighteen years of my life defined by this one fact: that I was raised with a chimpanzee,” she tells us. “It’s never going to be the first thing I share with someone. I tell you Fern was a chimp and already you aren’t thinking of her as my sister. But until Fern’s expulsion, I’d scarcely known a moment alone. She was my twin, my funhouse mirror, my whirlwind other half, and I loved her as a sister.”
Rosemary was not yet six when Fern was removed. Over the years, she’s managed to block a lot of memories. She’s smart, vulnerable, innocent, and culpable. With some guile, she guides us through the darkness, penetrating secrets and unearthing memories, leading us deeper into the mystery she has dangled before us from the start. Stripping off the protective masks that have hidden truths too painful to acknowledge, in the end, “Rosemary” truly is for remembrance.
So the middle of my story comes in the winter of 1996. By then, we’d long since dwindled to the family that old home movie fore¬shadowed—me, my mother, and, unseen but evident behind the camera, my father. In 1996, ten years had passed since I’d last seen my brother, seventeen since my sister disappeared. The middle of my story is all about their absence, though if I hadn’t told you that, you might not have known. By 1996, whole days went by in which I hardly thought of either one.
1996. Leap year. Year of the Fire Rat. President Clinton had just been reelected; this would all end in tears. Kabul had fallen to the Taliban. The Siege of Sarajevo had ended. Charles had recently divorced Diana.
Hale-Bopp came swinging into our sky. Claims of a Saturn-like object in the comet’s wake ﬁrst surfaced that November. Dolly, the cloned sheep, and Deep Blue, the chess-playing computer program, were superstars. There was evidence of life on Mars. The Saturn-like object in Hale-Bopp’s tail was maybe an alien spaceship. In May of ’97, thirty-nine people would kill themselves as a prerequi¬site to climbing aboard.
Against this backdrop, how ordinary I look. In 1996, I was twenty-two years old, meandering through my ﬁfth year at the University of California, Davis, and still maybe only a junior or maybe a senior, but so thoroughly uninterested in the niceties of units or requirements or degrees that I wouldn’t be graduating any¬time soon. My education, my father liked to point out, was wider than it was deep. He said this often.
But I saw no reason to hurry. I’d no particular ambitions be¬yond being either widely admired or stealthily inﬂuential—I was torn between the two. It hardly mattered, as no major seemed to lead reliably to either.
My parents, who were still paying my expenses, found me aggravating. My mother was often aggravated those days. It was something new for her, analeptic doses of righteous aggravation. She was rejuvenated by it. She’d recently announced that she was through being a translator and go-between for me and my father; he and I had hardly spoken since. I don’t remember minding. My father was himself a college professor and a pedant to the bone. Every exchange contained a lesson, like the pit in a cherry. To this day, the Socratic method makes me want to bite someone.
Autumn came suddenly that year, like a door opening. One morning I was bicycling to class when a large ﬂock of Canada geese passed overhead. I couldn’t see them, or much of anything else, but I heard the jazzy honking above me. There was a tule fog off the ﬁelds and I was wrapped inside it, pedaling through clouds. Tule fogs are not like other fogs, not spotty or drifting, but ﬁxed and substantial. Probably anyone would have felt the risk of moving quickly through an unseen world, but I have—or had as a child—a particular penchant for slapstick and mishap, so I took the full thrill from it.
I felt polished by the wet air and maybe just a little migratory myself, just a little wild. This meant I might ﬂirt a bit in the library if I sat next to anyone ﬂirtable or I might daydream in class. I often felt wild back then; I enjoyed the feeling, but nothing had ever come of it.
At lunchtime I grabbed something, probably grilled cheese, let’s say it was grilled cheese, in the school cafeteria. I was in the habit of leaving my books on the chair next to me, where they could be quickly moved if someone interesting came by but would discourage the uninteresting. At twenty-two, I had the callowest possible deﬁnition of interesting and, by the measure of my own calipers, was far from interesting myself.
A couple was sitting at a table near me and the girl’s voice grad¬ually rose to the point where I was forced to pay attention. “You want some fucking space?” she said. She was wearing a short blue T-shirt and a necklace with a glass pendant of an angelﬁsh. Long, dark hair fell in a messy braid down her back. She stood and cleared the table with one motion of her arm. She had beautiful biceps; I remember wishing I had arms like hers.
Dishes fell to the ﬂoor and shattered; catsup and cola spilled and mixed in the breakage. There must have been music in the back¬ground, because there’s always music in the background now, our whole lives sound-tracked (and most of it too ironic to be random. I’m just saying), but honestly I don’t remember. Maybe there was only a sweet silence and the spit of grease on the grill.
“How’s that?” the girl asked. “Don’t tell me to be quiet. I’m just making more space for you.” She pushed the table itself over, swung it to one side, dropped it. “Better?” She raised her voice. “Can everyone please leave the room so my boyfriend has more space? He needs a fucking lot of space.” She slammed her chair down onto the pile of catsup and dishes. More sounds of breakage and a sudden waft of coffee.
The rest of us were frozen—forks halfway to our mouths, spoons dipped in our soups, the way people were found after the eruption of Vesuvius.
“Don’t do this, baby,” her boyfriend said once, but she was doing it and he didn’t bother to repeat himself. She moved to an¬other table, empty except for a tray with dirty dishes. There, she methodically broke everything that could be broken, threw every¬thing that could be thrown. A saltshaker spun across the ﬂoor to my foot.
A young man rose from his seat, telling her, with a slight stutter, to take a chill pill. She threw a spoon that bounced audibly off his forehead. “Don’t side with assholes,” she said. Her voice was very not chill.
He sank back, eyes wide. “I’m okay,” he assured the room at large, but he sounded unconvinced. And then surprised. “Holy shit! I’ve been assaulted.”
“This is just the shit I can’t take,” the boyfriend said. He was a big guy, with a thin face, loose jeans, and a long coat. Nose like a knife. “You go ahead and tear it up, you psycho bitch. Just give me back the key to my place ﬁrst.”
She swung another chair, missing my head by maybe four feet—I’m being charitable; it seemed like a lot less—striking my table and upsetting it. I grabbed my glass and plate. My books hit the ﬂoor with a loud slap. “Come and get it,” she told him.
It struck me funny, a cook’s invitation over a pile of broken plates, and I laughed once, convulsively, a strange duck-like hoot that made everyone turn. And then I stopped laughing, because it was no laughing matter, and everyone turned back. Through the glass walls I could see some people on the quad who’d noticed the commotion and were watching. A threesome on their way in for lunch stopped short at the door.
“Don’t think I won’t.” He took a few steps in her direction. She scooped up a handful of catsup-stained sugar cubes and threw them.
“I’m ﬁnished,” he said. “We’re ﬁnished. I’m putting your shit in the hallway and I’m changing the locks.” He turned and she threw a glass, which bounced off his ear. He missed a step, staggered, touched the spot with one hand, checked his ﬁngers for blood. “You owe me for gas,” he said without looking back. “Mail it.” And he was gone.
There was a moment’s pause as the door closed. Then the girl turned on the rest of us. “What are you losers looking at?” She picked up one of the chairs and I couldn’t tell if she was going to put it back or throw it. I don’t think she’d decided.
A campus policeman arrived. He approached me cautiously, hand on his holster. Me! Standing above my toppled table and chair, still holding my harmless glass of milk and my plate with the harmless half-eaten grilled cheese sandwich. “Just put it down, honey,” he said, “and sit for a minute.” Put it down where? Sit where? Nothing in my vicinity was upright but me. “We can talk about this. You can tell me what’s going on. You’re not in any trouble yet.”
“Not her,” the woman behind the counter told him. She was a large woman, and old—forty or more—with a beauty mark on her upper lip and eyeliner collecting in the corners of her eyes. You all act like you own the place, she’d said to me once, on another occa¬sion, when I sent back a burger for more cooking. But you just come and go. You don’t even think how I’m the one who stays.
“The tall one,” she told the cop. She pointed, but he was paying no attention, so intent on me and whatever my next move would be.
“Calm down,” he said again, soft and friendly. “You’re not in any trouble yet.” He stepped forward, passing right by the girl with the braid and the chair. I saw her eyes behind his shoulder.
“Never a policeman when you need one,” she said to me. She smiled and it was a nice smile. Big white teeth. “No rest for the wicked.” She hoisted the chair over her head. “No soup for you.” She launched it away from me and the cop, toward the door. It landed on its back.
When the policeman turned to look, I dropped my plate and my fork. I honestly didn’t mean to. The ﬁngers of my left hand just unclenched all of a sudden. The noise spun the cop back to me.
I was still holding my glass, half full of milk. I raised it a lit¬tle, as if proposing a toast. “Don’t do it,” he said, a whole lot less friendly now. “I’m not playing around here. Don’t you fucking test me.”
And I threw the glass onto the ﬂoor. It broke and splashed milk over one of my shoes and up into my sock. I didn’t just let it go. I threw that glass down as hard as I could.
Praise for WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES
“A novel so readably juicy and surreptitiously smart, it deserves all the attention it can get . . . [Its] fresh diction and madcap plot bend the tone toward comedy, but it never mislays its solemn raison d’être. Monkeyshines aside, 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.”—Barbara Kingsolver, The New York Times Book Review
“Fowler’s interests here are in what sets humans apart from their fellow primates. Cognitive, language and memory skills all come into playful question. But the heart of the novel — and it has a big, warm, loudly beating heart throughout — is in its gradually pieced-together tale of family togetherness, disruption and reconciliation. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is Fowler at her best, mixing cerebral and emotional appeal together in an utterly captivating manner.”—The Seattle Times
“Rosemary’s voice is achingly memorable, and Fowler’s intelligent discourse on science vs. compassion reshapes the traditional family novel into something more universally relevant. The Cookes are unlike other families and like them at the same time, and through Rosemary’s unique perspective Fowler forces us to confront some tough truths. This brave, bold, shattering novel reminds us what it means to be human, in the best and worst sense.”—The Miami Herald
“Rosemary’s voice—vulnerable, angry, shockingly honest—is so compelling and the cast of characters, including Fern, irresistible. A fantastic novel: technically and intellectually complex, while emotionally gripping.”—Kirkus (starred review)
“Piquant humor, refulgent language, a canny plot rooted in real-life experiences, an irresistible narrator, threshing insights, and tender emotions—Fowler has outdone herself in this deeply inquisitive, cage-rattling novel.”—Booklist (starred review)
“A strong, unsettling novel . . . Fowler explores the depths of human emotions and delivers a tragic love story that captures our hearts.”—Library Journal (starred review)
“Rosemary’s experience [is] a fascinating basis for insight into memory, the mind, and human development . . . Fowler’s great accomplishment is not just that she takes the standard story of a family and makes it larger, but that the new space she’s created demands exploration.”—Publishers Weekly
"In this curious, wonderfully intelligent novel, Karen Joy Fowler brings to life a most unusual family. Wonderful Fern, wonderful Rosemary! Through them we feel what it means to be a human animal."—Andrea Barrett, author of Servants of the Map and Ship Fever
“Karen Joy Fowler has written the book she's always had in her to write. With all the quiet strangeness of her amazing Sarah Canary, and all the breezy wit and skill of her beloved Jane Austen Book Club, and a new, urgent gravity, she has told the story of an American family. An unusual family—but aren't all families unusual? A very American, an only-in-America family—and yet an everywhere family, whose children, parents, siblings, love one another very much, and damage one another badly. Does the love survive the damage? Will human beings survive the damage they do to the world they love so much? This is a strong, deep, sweet novel.”—Ursula K. Le Guin, author of Lavinia, The Unreal and the Real, and the Earthsea Cycle
“We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a dark cautionary tale hanging out, incognito-style, in what at first seems a traditional family narrative. It is anything but. This novel is deliciously jaunty in tone and disturbing in material. Karen Joy Fowler tells the story of how one animal—the animal of man—can simultaneously destroy and expand our notion of what is possible.”—Alice Sebold, New York Times-bestselling author of The Lovely Bones and The Almost Moon
“You know how people say something is incredible or unbelievable when they mean it's excellent? Well, Karen Joy Fowler's new book is excellent: utterly believable and completely credible - a funny, moving, entertaining novel that is also an important and unblinking review of a shameful chapter in the history of science.”—Dr. Mary Doria Russell, biological anthropologist and author of The Sparrow and Doc
“It’s been years since I’ve felt so passionate about a book. When I finished at 3 a.m., I wept, then I woke up the next morning, reread the ending, and cried all over again.” —Ruth Ozeki, author of My Year of Meats and A Tale for the Time Being
"This unforgettable novel is a dark and beautiful journey into the heart of a family, an exploration of the meanings of memory, a study of what it means to be 'human.' In the end the book doesn't just break your heart; it takes your heart and won't give it back."—Dan Chaon, author of Await Your Reply and Stay Awake
“It really is impossible to do justice here in a blurb. This is a funny, stingingly smart, and heartbreaking book. Among other things, it's about love, family, loss, and secrets; the acquisition and the loss of language. It's also about two sisters, Rosemary and Fern, who are unlike any other sisters you've ever met before.”—Kelly Link, author of Stranger Things Happen and Pretty Monsters
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