No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

2014/06: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves -- Karen Joy Fowler

... the happening and the telling are very different things. This doesn’t mean that the story isn’t true, only that I honestly don’t know anymore if I really remember it or only remember how to tell it. Language does this to our memories—simplifies, solidifies, codifies, mummifies. An oft-told story is like a photograph in a family album; eventually, it replaces the moment it was meant to capture. [loc.630]

Despite reviews (print and online) and the blurb of the physical book itself, I managed to remain ignorant of the major twist in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, and suspect my reading experience was much the better for it. There is, after all, a reason why a particular fact isn't revealed for the first eighty pages or so: the story is much stronger if the reader gets to know each character as an individual person, rather than knowing from the outset just what it is that sets one member of Rose's family apart from the rest.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a novel about family, memory and the disintegration -- the failure -- of both. Rose grew up with a sister and a brother, and their two emotionally distant parents: she lost her sister when she was five, and her brother left when she was eleven. I definitely blame the parents here: as events unfold it's difficult to understand just how oblivious they seem to be to the problems of their remaining child. Yes, at the age of five she told a lie that had a profound effect on the family. Yes, her memories are unreliable. Yes, her brother has become a domestic terrorist ('Every girl’s dream, if she can’t have a vampire', observes Rose rather snidely. [loc.2776]) But her parents are scientists: her father is a psychologist, her mother, perhaps, an anthropologist, though her field of study is never mentioned. How could they not notice how damaged Rose is? How can they fail to see that something's wrong, when a campus cop zeroes in on Rose instantly (and mistakenly) as a perpetrator of violence?

There are recurring themes of lost and found: Rose loses her mother's journals (well, an airline loses her luggage); her long-absent brother Lowell returns, albeit briefly; Fern, Rose's sister, is located. But Rose's memories are not so much lost as overwritten. "Sometimes in matters of great emotion, one representation, retaining all the original intensity, comes to replace another, which is then discarded and forgotten. The new representation is called a screen memory. A screen memory is a compromise between remembering something painful and defending yourself against that very remembering." [loc.2902] Rose seems certain, by the end of the book, that she's regained the true memories of her childhood: but I can't help wondering what remains lost.

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