Updated: Feb 16
‘I honestly don’t know anymore if I really remember it or only remember how to tell it’ - Rosemary, 'We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves'
I first wanted to read Karen Joy Fowler’s ‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ [WAACBO] when I was 17, and first saw it advertised in my college as part of their Book Club. I never did, mainly after realising my only attraction to the novel in the first place was the artwork’s passing resemblance to my favourite Jack Johnson album cover (I know I know, ‘never judge a book by its cover’…)
I did however recently manage to find a copy for 50p in a charity shop, and *SPOILER ALERT*(please scroll to the bottom of this blog post for a brief synopsis, otherwise, read ahead at your own discretion) I am MUCH more interested into Rosemary’s (Rose) thinking, than I am her having a chimp for a sister – ooo ooo, really?
Terrible humour aside, WAACBO is told by Rose, who is most obviously influenced by the abnormal upbringing of having ‘Fern’, a science-experiment chimp, as her sister. I’ve chosen not to delve too deeply into this, mainly for it poses SO many other questions concerning morality, Darwinism, and the distance between man/animal, but also for this strange experiment in Rose’s life cannot be wholly attributable to her ruminative thought processes, which is what I’ve chosen to focus on.
I’ll start with the parents, because that’s where Rose started, but mainly because I find them to be a real sticking-point in relation to Rose’s ability to function. Both scientists, a mother bed-ridden with depression and a father so consumed by his research and inability to care for his wife, he turns to alcohol, Fern is their house monkey raised alongside Rose (with Fern being two months older). The two are ‘sisters’, a ‘fact’ imposed on the family by the parents. And it is this that I am most interested and concerned by.
Time and time again, both parents impose doctrinal ‘facts’ upon Rose when she challenges or questions situations, particularly with regards to her memories. Her parents are keen to shut down anything remotely distressing; ‘Whatever you’re upset about, you’re just imagining it, it’s not real’, almost in denial of what has actually happened; ‘My parents swore I knew about and had even witnessed [it happen], though I have no memory of [it]’. In the innocence of her childhood, Rose totally believes what she is told, allowing her parents rhetoric to take over as her truth. When she recalls about her father running over a cat, her mother is imperative in her dismissal, ‘I think that must have been a dream. You must know that your father would never, ever do such a thing’.
Rose also carries this method over into adulthood; when she is told as a child that ‘When you think of three things to say, pick one and say only that’, she repeats this mantra to herself when she is older in her college dorm, only it becomes ‘when I think four things, five, six, seven, more than’. The impression given is that Rose is restricted by her experience, so tightly governed by the discipline she has received that, at some point, it will get too much and she will have to release all this pent-up frustration in ways we can only imagine as reckless (or animal-like, again drawing parallels to the unusual circumstances of her upbringing).
It is almost as if through this, the parents have taught Rose how to her doubt memory: ‘You were a happy, happy child’ her mother asserts, to which Rose asks, ‘Was I? I don’t remember’. Rose has almost taught herself how to question her own thoughts and feelings against a measure of validity, and weigh this against ‘fact’, through being stuck in cycles of experience-doubt-question-confusion-memory-and back to experience; she is shut down not only in her thinking, but also in her speaking, the formative element of language being so routinely squashed by her parents has helped to further ingrain these patterns in Rose, which we also see in other aspects of her life.
There are a whole myriad of motifs that run through Fowler’s novel as Rose’s thought processes – strung out to the extent that even passing descriptions keep cropping up to remind us just how intrinsic Rose’s cyclical thinking is. I felt myself going back to their significance, and trying to relate it to Rose’s story, as I was reading. When I was writing my initial notes, these seven really stood out to me:
- Language: as previously mentioned, much of Rose’s thinking acts as an over-spill for what she is not allowed to say; ‘without the release of talking, these thoughts crowded my brain’. She also states that language ‘simplifies, solidifies, codifies, [and] mummifies’ memories.
- Cats: mentioned in numerous passing descriptions alongside the two violent deaths and depictions of one being run over and, at a different time, Fern pulling apart a cat’s stomach, Rose often returns to these particular stories: ‘was there a right cat?’, so pre-concerned as to whether she could she have done anything to prevent their deaths.
- Jealousy: this crops up between Rose and Fern, but also between Rose and her brother Lowell, as well as between Rose and her ‘friend’ Harlow. She can however see this in herself – ‘jealousy is my single besetting sin’ – which indicates awareness of this trait that she may have gained looking back on her childhood memories, rather than knowing the feeling at the time.
- Fantasy: this plays into the doubt for Rose and the reader over what is real and what is imagined. ‘Fantasy’ is often referenced in relation to Rose’s struggles with identity: ‘If we were playing a part, I could establish a distance [but] this was where the fairy-tale ran out of road’. The constant blurring between fantasy and reality likens itself to the cyclical nature of her thought processes.
- Sleep: ironically, sleep is one of the most important things to have as part of a good routine, but for Rose this is not the case. ‘First a decision, then later a habit’, she discusses how she uses sleep ‘to escape the unhappy situations’. Again, Rose remains habitual in her response to certain situations; ‘I took my old escape route and I still knew the way’.
- Mirrors and reflections (both literal and metaphorical): Rose continuously looks back on her past self as a point of comparison, but feels that ‘whoever I was before is no one I ever got to know’. Coming back after going out, she sees herself in the bathroom mirror, and 'rejects it entirely'; 'No way do I look like that. That must be someone else’. Relaying this memory in the present tense demonstrates just how ingrained and powerful her thoughts and beliefs about herself are. Her reaction is also evident of how she has adopted the imperative thinking her parents put onto her in many instances throughout the novel.
- Crying: whilst these descriptions are more prevalent throughout the times Rose is at college, it also relates to her childhood memories, in which the events often ‘swam in and out of focus’. Rose appears to project physically, through crying, the inconsistencies in her mind; ‘I’d done so much crying…you wouldn’t have thought I had any tears left’ – clearly showing her mental and physical processes not working together.
As aforementioned, there are a whole host of motifs I could put in this list. However, the strength of these seven too coincidentally fit with Rose’s description of the seven connections man can make (she references 'Premack and Woodruff's levels of embedded imputation', saying 'Gifted adults can go in as deep as seven layers, but this appears to be about the human limit'). I feel in some way this could also be deliberate of Fowler, who has organised her novel into sections of seven chapters each; this is adhered to without fail, but the breaks feel genuine and unforced. It is almost as if Fowler (or Rose as narrator) believes the reader wouldn’t be able to cope with more than seven at a time, only possessing the capacity to retain a certain amount before sections, facts and memories become blurred and distorted – thus losing their validity.
Memory is something Rose herself questions and clarifies through WAACBO, particularly through her clear disconnect between experiences and memories. Talking of the cat her father ran over (a very strong image she returns to, as have I), she is certain that, ‘to this day, I can feel the bump of the tire over the cats body. And to this day, I am very clear in my mind that it never happened’. For Rose, ‘this memory is only as vivid as the one it replaces’, demonstrating in her this regenerative quality, almost for the sake of her trying to manage and being able to live with her constant whirl-wind of thoughts, memories and emotions. She briefly mentions psychoanalysis as a possible theory as to why she uses these ruminative practices, saying the theory ‘imagines someone’s life as being shaped by one single trauma’. However, it is clear for Rose there is never only ‘one thing’; time shifts (‘You can put the middle anywhere you like. So too, the beginning and so, too, the end’), and everything links and connects.
This relates to my own interest into ‘Hyperreality’, which is essentially ‘desiring reality in an attempt to achieve desire, and doing so through fabricating a false reality that is to be taken as real’. A hyperreal state of mind, in my understanding, is in overdrive; where thoughts, memories and experiences are blurred to the extent that it is impossible to truly differentiate between reality and fantasy. Applying this to Rose, this of course is not helped when her account differs from others - such as her memories not aligning with her parent’s or her brother's. Hyperreality can also cause a false sense of certainty, evident with Rose when she clarifies, ‘I’ve stuck here to the part I can tell, the part that’s mine’. As a reader, if we think of her as being in this fragile state-of-mind, we question her story, and wonder for ourselves about what has really happened.
The cyclical nature of Rose's thoughts (particularly through the motifs discussed) and ‘the beginning-middle-end’ presented as being able to be in any order, is reflected in the title: ‘We Are All Beside Ourselves’. All the versions we have made for ourselves exist next to each other, as each time we try to change, or change how others perceive us, who we fundamentally are remains. All these revisions of our ourselves exist in the same time as recognition of what we once were and what we could be again; there is a fluid possibility in regressing back to one of these ‘people’ (as Rosemary so puts it), as well as someone new entirely.
The saying ‘we are all completely besides ourselves’ – which is coyly referenced by Rosemary’s mother – suggests someone in an overwhelmed state, finding it hard to cope and reacting to an uncertain situation. The title’s subtle but significant difference of changing ‘besides’ to ‘beside’ in a play on this, suggests that personalities exist together - possibly uncomfortably, but very much able to be with each other. Contradicting the panicked nature of the saying, it seems as if Rosemary finds a peace in this towards the end of the novel: ‘I had an odd sense of clarity, I wasn’t in the past anymore; I was acutely in the moment. I was composed and focused’.
I finished reading WAACBO with a mixed-bag of conclusions, theories and thoughts. As a reader, we are naturally inclined to side with protagonist, and I want to believe Rose as I feel her parents are a negative force on her life and experiences and attributable to her learned thought processes. However, much of the story is told from the perspective of an older Rose looking back on her childhood. When we do this, we have tendency to exaggerate certain aspects of the memory, as different parts become more important or hold a greater significance over time with retrospection. For me, there is no doubt that some of her experiences and the emotions attached to these are exaggerated, but I also feel that she is somewhat justified in this due to the unnatural circumstances she grew up in, and had to learn to adapt to.
Navigating the - at times - wildness of Rose's stories is both confusing and engaging; ultimately, this is testament to Fowler's talent of depicting unhealthy thought processes in a way that makes them exciting. She ensures that the reader wants to further pick Rose's processes apart and come to their own theory about how much of her story is real.
Until next time, H.M.
References and Further Reading:
- All quotes taken from ‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves' by Karen Joy Fowler (Edition 2014, Serpent's Tail, ISBN 978 1 84668 966 6).
- Summary of 'We Are All Beside Ourselves': http://www.bookrags.com/studyguide-we-are-all-completely-beside-ourselves/#gsc.tab=0
- The Gurdian's 'A Provocative Take On Family Love' book review: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/20/completely-beside-ourselves-family-love-review
- The Indepedent's 'We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves' book review: https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/book-review-we-are-all-completely-beside-ourselves-by-karen-joy-fowler-9176705.html
- Brief definition of Hyperreality: https://www.thefreedictionary.com/hyperreality
- Ceasefire's account of Jean Baudrillard and his theory of Hyperreality: https://ceasefiremagazine.co.uk/in-theory-baudrillard-9/
- The Jack Johnson album cover I very badly reference is 'In Between Dreams', an image of which can be found here.
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