I have many feelings about literary awards and they are all tangled together.
In general, I like them. I am often pleased, but occasionally outraged, by a particular choice. It’s a thoroughly pleasurable sort of outrage though, because the conversation is all about books and takes place among people to whom books matter. Of course, the whole enterprise of declaring one book better than all the others is instantly untenable. But I’m glad that people try. Glad and grateful.”
During the course of each year’s Man Booker Prize, one weird and wonderful novel often emerges to grab the public’s imagination. Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus was one such novel, Howard Jacobson’s Kalooki Nights, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Richard House’s The Kills are three more. Whether they win or not – and sadly these books often don’t – the feeling persists that in a better, smarter and more adventurous world these ground-breaking books should.
2014’s contender may well be Karen Joy Fowler’s extraordinary We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, published by the small but perfectly formed Serpent’s Tail, which has made a speciality of punching above its weight. First, Fowler carried off the prestigious Pen/Faulkner Prize in America. “I still can’t quite believe it,” Fowler says. “The jurors were all people I’d read and admired, and the rest of the list was quite wonderful. I can’t say that winning the Pen/Faulkner was a dream come true, because I would never have dared to dream it.”
Now Fowler has become one of the first American authors to be longlisted for the Man Booker, beating off competition from much higher-profile authors including Donna Tartt. In the weeks before novels by the heavy hitters were released – the two Davids Mitchell and Nicholls – Fowler was selling as many copies as the rest of the nominees put together. When I ask for her reaction, Fowler sounds lost for words. “Incredible. Heady. Unbelievable. Really a great, great time to be me.”
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is full of surprises, containing a real-life premise that beggars belief, a twist to rival anything in recent memory, and an ending that will have you in floods of tears. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is Karen Joy Fowler herself. When we met at her London publisher’s office on the day of the novel’s publication, the 64- year-old seemed too down-to-earth to have created this year’s left-field Man Booker hit. Ask about her creative process and she is amusingly no-nonsense. “I hear so many writers say – and these are writers that I trust completely – ‘I just started hearing a voice’, or ‘the characters came to life’. I am filled with loathing for my own characters when I hear that because they do nothing of the sort. Left to their own devices they do nothing but drink coffee and complain about their lives.”
Fowler may not take herself seriously, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. The strange beauty of her new novel fits neatly into the beautiful strangeness of her entire career. Best known for The Jane Austen Bookclub, which was diluted into a feel-good movie, Fowler has shuttled between historical novels set in the Gilded Age (Wit’s End) and America after the Second World War (The Sweetheart Season), science fiction (The Science of Herself) and fantasy: stories about one-winged men and magical fairy lands.
She recalls attending a lecture about how to build the perfect literary career. “It was called ‘Why Be Miserable?’ The smart way to build a literary career is you create an identifiable product then reliably produce that product so people know what they are going to get. That’s the smart way to build a career, but not the fun way. Maybe you can think about being less successful and happier. That’s an option too.”
Fowler admits she has paid the price for her diverse fun. “My books have occasionally been of mixed success. It’s not like I have gone from triumph to triumph. I have had a couple of books do very, very well and a couple do very, very badly.”
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves proves that ambition and success are not mutually exclusive. Its narrator, Rosemary Cooke, is an introverted college student drifting through life. Slowly, we learn that her isolation springs from her unconventional family. Her father is an animal behaviourist, her mother is traumatised, her brother has gone Awol and her sister, Fern, has vanished entirely. Cooke implies that Fern’s disappearance lies at the heart of her dysfunction.
(Spoiler alert: those who wish to avoid the twist should avert their eyes until the final paragraph...)
On page 77, Rosemary reveals that Fern was a chimpanzee introduced into the family as an experiment run by her father. This idea, which was based on actual experiments, was suggested by Fowler’s daughter. “She said I should think what it would be like to be that child, whose father thought it was appropriate to use your childhood as a psychological experiment.” The novel’s roots are also close to home. Fowler’s father, like Rosemary’s, was an animal behaviourist. “He’s kind of a mythical figure in the family. He worked with rats studying learning processes. I spent a fair amount of time as a child in the rat lab. I was allowed to take them out and play. I always say there can be few people who get the nostalgic hit off rat cages that I do.”
It was a colleague of her father who conducted one of the first experiments involving chimpanzees integrated into human families. “My dad did not work with the monkeys. I remember being relieved about that. There was no way to pretend that the monkeys were happy. The reason I wasn’t allowed in was that if you went anywhere near their cages they would try to grab and bite you. They were clearly furious, miserable and possibly insane.”
Fowler condemns the use of animals in scientific research, but her dismay cannot blind her to the advantages she enjoys. “My feelings about a lot of the experiments are mixed. The casualness with which animals have been used and discarded is very troubling – in the food industries as well as scientific research.” Nevertheless, she adds: “If it’s [between] my child and some lab research animal, I am not going to have a hard time making that decision. But I’m going to want to know the research is beneficial and that the level of suffering has been reduced as much as possible.”
Unpicking these moral quandaries has taken its toll. Fowler is clearly enjoying her success, but has been left spent by the emotional traumas of the book itself. When I ask what she is working on next, her answer suggests it is the hardest of acts to follow. “This book drew deeper on me in some ways. Ursula Le Guin, in a lovely quote, said it was the book I was meant to write. I think I feel that way about it. I feel that connection to it. What does one write next when one has written the book one was meant to?”
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler (Serpent’s Tail, £7.99)
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