Karen Joy Fowler – We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2013)

karen joy fowlerSo the first decision I have to make in writing about this book is whether to disclose or not.  At the centre of the book is a “twist”, a secret, which the book only fully reveals about a third of the way through. I did not know this before I started reading and I think this enhanced my experience, so there are no spoilers here.  I loved this book and I want others to read it too.

This, however, makes the writing difficult.  How do I write about the book without acknowledging the weirdness of a central relationship?  Simple, I make it short. 

So, I shall start with the telling of the story.  I have said before that narrative is my favourite methodological approach.  I have an interest in people’s stories, not just for their content, but for how they tell them and construct them for an audience.  I am interested in how power works to mould the stories we feel we can tell about ourselves.  In this novel we have a story that starts in the middle.

“So the middle of my story comes in the winter of 1996… 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.” (page 5)

This decision by the author has to be so.  It helps to conceal the twist.  It also starts a story at a point where you can see “damage” done to the narrator.  We meet her at the middle – just as we meet most new people, at the middle of some story.  It is worth acknowledging this to ensure that we don’t rush to conclusions, judgements, prejudices.  However, it is also reflective of a life that needs to keep jumping from one time to another.  The character is both present and formed by an unclear, unresolved set of memories.  She is always in the middle.  She began in the middle of an experiment.

Experiment – that is a difficult word for a narrative enthusiast.  Experimentation is often accepted as being at the other end of the scale from storytelling.

“Traditionally, mainstream positivistic psychology researchers have criticised qualitative research for being nothing more than ‘anecdotal.  The story is, for these self-styled scientists, the quintessentially unscientific, invalid and deeply subjective datum of the qualitative project” (Goodley, 2011: 130).

This novel gives you the story of an experiment.  At times, it is suggestive of the hubris of humankind – the belief that we ask the right questions, to design the right experiment, to observe and record the right answers.  Rosemary (the novel’s protagonist) and her brother, Lowell had met the psychologist Dr Harlow as children.  He had given them lemon drops.  They also knew this.

“But no one would name a baby after Harry Harlow.  He’d taken rhesus monkey infants away from their mothers and given them inanimate mothers instead, mothers made alternatively of terry-cloth or wire, to see which, in the absence of other choices, the babies preferred.  He claimed, deliberately provocative, to be studying love.

The baby monkeys clung pathetically to the fake, uncaring mothers, until they all turned psychotic or died.  “I don’t know what he thought he’d learned about them,” Lowell said.  “But in their short, sad little lives, they sure learned a hell of a lot about him.” (page 201)

For social policy, this quest for knowledge and trying to link it to the real world and real problems is contentious:

“Empirical evidence is important for social policy, but it cannot establish policy or priorities itself.  Empirical material has to be interpreted, problems have to be recognised as important, evidence has to be seen as pointing to some outcome, ‘facts’ have to be constructed in a way which relates them to possible policy responses… Translating evidence into policy is not straightforward; interpretation and evaluation are unavoidable.” (Spicker, 2008: 203)

However, to understand what the novel is really saying about how we search for knowledge can only really be examined by addressing key aspects of the plot.  I can’t do this here. However, as Rosemary states at the end: “Nobody’s arguing these issues are easy.”

References

Fowler, K. A. (2013) We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” London: Serpent’s Tail

Goodley, D. (2011) “Narrative Inquiry” in Banister, P. et al. (eds) Qualitative Methods in Psychology Maidenhead: Open University Press

Spicker, P. (2008) Social Policy: Themes and Approaches Bristol: Policy Press

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