Author: Karen Joy Fowler
Type: Fiction, novel
I read it: July 2016
The plot hook for this novel isn’t revealed until page 77, but it might be hard to avoid given the necessary marketing for the book. If you want a solid literary novel with a unique family at its core, I recommend just picking this up and jumping in.
But for those who have already noticed the silhouetted mammal hanging from the “C” on the cover, you’ll probably know what’s going on before the author chooses to reveal it. The story is told by a woman named Rosemary, who reflects back on her childhood and how it shaped her life. Her parents are scientists and she has two siblings: older brother Lowell and a sister, Fern. Fern is a chimpanzee.
The book spends a lot of time with Rosemary during her college years, while dipping back into her early childhood memories. The traumatic event around which everything hangs is when Fern was removed from the family when Rosemary was five. Thus the novel is a personal story with broader philosophical musings on (wo)man vs. nature. The major parts in the book are introduced by quotes from Franz Kafka’s “A Report for an Academy,” the story in which a captured ape learns how to speak and act like a human. Rosemary pieces together her thoughts on what kind of human she came to be after living alongside Fern. Some of this is realized through the lens of what her parents did, or tried to do:
Dad didn’t know then what we think we know now, that the neural system of a young brain develops partly by mirroring the brains around it. As much time as Fern and I spent together, that mirror went both ways.
These ideas emphasize the cleverness of the title. While I had to look up the basic meaning of the phrase to remind myself what it meant (a description of madness), it neatly sums up the “mirroring” that the sisters experience—a phenomenon that affected Rosemary as much as it might have affected Fern. Rosemary developed dramatic social limitations because of her sister being ripped away from her, and who was one of the only creatures Rosemary was intensely attached to. Among other things, it affected her relationship to language:
At dinner, I adopted my usual strategy of saying nothing. The spoken word converts individual knowledge into mutual knowledge, and there is no way back once you’ve gone over that cliff. Saying nothing was more amendable, and over time I’d come to see that it was usually your best course of action.
So it is that we hear a lot about Fern’s endless chattering at a young age: how she entered a period of not talking after Fern was out of the picture, and then the book itself is an outpouring of confession after she is ready to talk again. The narrator doubts language as fully capable of telling her story, although of course it’s the only option she has. She tries to self-analyze and analyze her family members to give a factual yet also emotionally accurate account of her upbringing.
Language does this to our memories—simplifies, solidifies, codifies, mummifies. An oft-told story is like a photograph in a family album; it replaces the moment it was meant to capture.
Fowler’s command of language, flow, story, and ethical musing is an attractive mix. The novel tries to be, and I think succeeds at being, many things at once. The first-person gossip makes for swift page-turning, yet the “who are we?” subtexts mean that we get to chew on a lot of the thornier issues. The author creates a realistic story because she relays actual cultures: the experimental science of the 1970s, college life in the 90s, and even the complexities of animal rights activism. The real-life case studies that Fowler weaves into her fiction intrigues, such as one researcher who said this about the chimp he studied and cared for, who was the first nonhuman ever to learn American Sign Language: “she taught him that in the phrase human being, the word being is much more important than the word human.”
Or the following, which further illustrates that Fowler is exploring real ethical and scientific implications throughout her novel:
Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? They answered with a definite yes. Chimps do see that mental states, such as purpose and knowledge, combine to produce deliberate action. They even understand deceit.
What chimps don’t seem capable of understanding is the state of false belief. They don’t have a theory of mind that accounts for actions driven by beliefs in conflict with reality.
And really, who lacking that will ever be able to navigate the human world?
Who, indeed? Rosemary states, “Language is such an imprecise vehicle I sometimes wonder why we bother with it.” The paradox is Fowler’s willingness to try to tell the story through language anyway. Language is just another imperfect way of seeing ourselves, a strange mirror as a substitute for staring directly into a sibling’s face.