American Literature, Animal Rights, Book Clubs, book reviews, Fiction, historical fiction, Humans, Karen Joy Fowler, New York Times Notable Books, Novels, Psychology, Reading Suggestions, Robotics, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Women's Literature
On May 29, 2014 I reviewed “The Science of Herself”, a collection of short stories and an abbreviated biography of the sometime science fiction and fantasy writer Karen Joy Fowler. In “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves”, a coming of age, historical novel, Ms. Fowler delves into the psychological consequences of a family raising a child and a baby chimpanzee as siblings. A The New York Times’ 100 notable books of 2012, this novel is a must read.
I previously reviewed two other psychological historical novels: “The Man Who Walked Away” (see February 13, 2015) and “A Tale for the Time Being” (September 3, 2014). The latter was written by Ruth Ozeki, who Ms. Fowler acknowledges for her support in writing this novel. Their unassuming writing styles belie the depth of their works. In Ms. Ozeki’s novel, suicide and cultural dysfunction are explored. Here the subject is more basic: what is it that makes us human and distinguishable from our primate relative? Fern and Rosemary are epigenetic sisters in childhood. Genetics, however, cannot be ignored. As Fern ages the difficulties or raising a chimpanzee outside her natural environment emerge.
Rosemary is the Monkey Girl. She knows she is different, but the differences are not always clear to her. Fern also does not fit in when resituated with other simians in lab cages. Ms. Fowler, through her characters, examines animal rights in the context of business and scientific research.
“The infliction of economic damage on those profiting from misery is a stated goal… This is why a number of states are considering laws that make the unauthorized photographing of what goes no in factory farms and slaughterhouses a felony. … It’s no coincidence that one of the Abu Ghraib torturers came to the military directly from a job as a chicken processor.”
The use of animals as pin cushions, food and pelts is not a diatribe. It is deftly handled within the context of the characters. Such “ag gag” laws have failed to be enacted in any state, although North Carolina had a Bill introduced in 2015.
The author’s larger purpose is exposing ill-considered psychological studies of animals vis-a-vis humans.
“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 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.'”
Human study of animals is a one-way mirror. The presumption of intelligence is anthropomorphic. How well do animals adapt to humans and the human environment? Fern learns to sign as a means of communication. Rosemary can understand some of the mannerisms of Fern, but she, nor any other human, can communicate in the language of any animal.
“‘Here’s the problem with Dad’s approach.’ …’Right in the fundamental assumptions. Dad was always saying that we were all animals, but when he dealt with Fern, he didn’t start from that place of congruence. His method put the whole burden of proof onto her. It was always her failure for not being able to talk to us, never ours for not being able to understand her. It would have been more scientifically rigorous to start with the assumption of similarity. It would have been a lot more Darwinian.'”
There have been studies that animals do not have the equivalent long-term (episodic) memory of humans. Primates apparently have short-term memory that is far superior to humans. Whether this is due to superior senses or different mental faculties is not clear (if the latter it might merit study in the treatment of Alzheimer’s and dementia). There is no way to know the strength or weakness of episodic memory in animals, although data has been persuasive that scrub jays have episodic memory. Temporal remembrance -when things happened- is a weakness in animals and most humans.
At some time in the not to distance future we will need to come to grips with what is human. Google has a patent that instills robots with human traits. Deep learning, neural networks, will create machines that are independent thinking and perhaps more advanced than human. Science fiction may be misnomer. The fiction may be our present beliefs about ourselves,
This novel is more subtle than this review might indicate. It is first a good story with good characters. It is not a rant. The characters deftly raise questions within the context of the storyline. The plain language makes the evolving story unexpected and more powerful. Ms. Fowler tells the story starting in the middle and works backwards and forwards. I was not sure how she was going to end the book, but like the rest of the novel it was done strongly.