We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Pen/Faulkner Award - Fiction)

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9780399162091: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Pen/Faulkner Award - Fiction)

Shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize
Winner of the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award

One of the New York Times Book Review's 100 Notable Books of 2013
Named by The Christian Science Monitor as one of the top 15 works of fiction


The New York Times bestselling author of The Jane Austen Book Club introduces a middle-class American family, ordinary in every way but one...
 
Meet the Cooke family: Mother and Dad, brother Lowell, sister Fern, and Rosemary, who begins her story in the middle. She has her reasons. “I was raised with a chimpanzee,” she explains. “I tell you Fern was a chimp and already you aren’t thinking of her as my sister. But until Fern’s expulsion...she was my twin, my funhouse mirror, my whirlwind other half and I loved her as a sister.” As a child, Rosemary never stopped talking. Then, something happened, and Rosemary wrapped herself in silence.

In We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler weaves her most accomplished work to date—a tale of loving but fallible people whose well-intentioned actions lead to heartbreaking consequences.

“A gripping, big-hearted book...through the tender voice of her protagonist, Fowler has a lot to say about family, memory, language, science, and indeed the question of what constitutes a human being.”—Khaled Hosseini 

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About the Author:

Karen Joy Fowler, a PEN/Faulkner and California Book Award winner, is the author of six novels (two of them New York Times bestsellers) and four short story collections. She has been a Dublin IMPAC nominee, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2014. She lives in Santa Cruz, California.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Also by Karen Joy Fowler

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Epigraph

Prologue

Part One

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Part Two

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Part Three

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Part Four

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Part Five

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Part Six

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

 

Acknowledgments

An Exciting Preview of Black Glass

Prologue

THOSE WHO KNOW ME NOW will be surprised to learn that I was a great talker as a child. We have a home movie taken when I was two years old, the old-fashioned kind with no sound track, and by now the colors have bled out—a white sky, my red sneakers a ghostly pink—but you can still see how much I used to talk.

I’m doing a bit of landscaping, picking up one stone at a time from our gravel driveway, carrying it to a large tin washtub, dropping it in, and going back for the next. I’m working hard, but showily. I widen my eyes like a silent film star. I hold up a clear piece of quartz to be admired, put it in my mouth, stuff it into one cheek.

My mother appears and removes it. She steps back then, out of the frame, but I’m speaking emphatically now—you can see this in my gestures—and she returns, drops the stone into the tub. The whole thing lasts about five minutes and I never stop talking.

A few years later, Mom read us that old fairy tale in which one sister (the older) speaks in toads and snakes and the other (the younger) in flowers and jewels, and this is the image it conjured for me, this scene from this movie, where my mother puts her hand into my mouth and pulls out a diamond.

I was towheaded back then, prettier as a child than I’ve turned out, and dolled up for the camera. My flyaway bangs are pasted down with water and held on one side by a rhinestone barrette shaped like a bow. Whenever I turn my head, the barrette blinks in the sunlight. My little hand sweeps over my tub of rocks. All this, I could be saying, all this will be yours someday.

Or something else entirely. The point of the movie isn’t the words themselves. What my parents valued was their extravagant abundance, their inexhaustible flow.

Still, there were occasions on which I had to be stopped. When you think of two things to say, pick your favorite and only say that, my mother suggested once, as a tip to polite social behavior, and the rule was later modified to one in three. My father would come to my bedroom door each night to wish me happy dreams and I would speak without taking a breath, trying desperately to keep him in my room with only my voice. I would see his hand on the doorknob, the door beginning to swing shut. I have something to say! I’d tell him, and the door would stop midway.

Start in the middle then, he’d answer, a shadow with the hall light behind him, and tired in the evenings the way grown-ups are. The light would reflect in my bedroom window like a star you could wish on.

Skip the beginning. Start in the middle.

Part One

The storm which blew me out of my past eased off.

—FRANZ KAFKA, “A Report for an Academy”

One

SO THE MIDDLE of my story comes in the winter of 1996. By then, we’d long since dwindled to the family that old home movie foreshadowed—me, my mother, and, unseen but evident behind the camera, my father. 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.

1996. Leap year. Year of the Fire Rat. President Clinton had just been reelected; this would all end in tears. Kabul had fallen to the Taliban. The Siege of Sarajevo had ended. Charles had recently divorced Diana.

Hale-Bopp came swinging into our sky. Claims of a Saturn-like object in the comet’s wake first surfaced that November. Dolly, the cloned sheep, and Deep Blue, the chess-playing computer program, were superstars. There was evidence of life on Mars. The Saturn-like object in Hale-Bopp’s tail was maybe an alien spaceship. In May of ’97, thirty-nine people would kill themselves as a prerequisite to climbing aboard.

Against this backdrop, how ordinary I look. In 1996, I was twenty-two years old, meandering through my fifth year at the University of California, Davis, and still maybe only a junior or maybe a senior, but so thoroughly uninterested in the niceties of units or requirements or degrees that I wouldn’t be graduating anytime soon. My education, my father liked to point out, was wider than it was deep. He said this often.

But I saw no reason to hurry. I’d no particular ambitions beyond being either widely admired or stealthily influential—I was torn between the two. It hardly mattered, as no major seemed to lead reliably to either.

My parents, who were still paying my expenses, found me aggravating. My mother was often aggravated those days. It was something new for her, analeptic doses of righteous aggravation. She was rejuvenated by it. She’d recently announced that she was through being a translator and go-between for me and my father; he and I had hardly spoken since. I don’t remember minding. My father was himself a college professor and a pedant to the bone. Every exchange contained a lesson, like the pit in a cherry. To this day, the Socratic method makes me want to bite someone.

Autumn came suddenly that year, like a door opening. One morning I was bicycling to class when a large flock of Canada geese passed overhead. I couldn’t see them, or much of anything else, but I heard the jazzy honking above me. There was a tule fog off the fields and I was wrapped inside it, pedaling through clouds. Tule fogs are not like other fogs, not spotty or drifting, but fixed and substantial. Probably anyone would have felt the risk of moving quickly through an unseen world, but I have—or had as a child—a particular penchant for slapstick and mishap, so I took the full thrill from it.

I felt polished by the wet air and maybe just a little migratory myself, just a little wild. This meant I might flirt a bit in the library if I sat next to anyone flirtable or I might daydream in class. I often felt wild back then; I enjoyed the feeling, but nothing had ever come of it.

At lunchtime I grabbed something, probably grilled cheese, let’s say it was grilled cheese, in the school cafeteria. I was in the habit of leaving my books on the chair next to me, where they could be quickly moved if someone interesting came by but would discourage the uninteresting. At twenty-two, I had the callowest possible definition of interesting and, by the measure of my own calipers, was far from interesting myself.

A couple was sitting at a table near me and the girl’s voice gradually rose to the point where I was forced to pay attention. “You want some fucking space?” she said. She was wearing a short blue T-shirt and a necklace with a glass pendant of an angelfish. Long, dark hair fell in a messy braid down her back. She stood and cleared the table with one motion of her arm. She had beautiful biceps; I remember wishing I had arms like hers.

Dishes fell to the floor and shattered; catsup and cola spilled and mixed in the breakage. There must have been music in the background, because there’s always music in the background now, our whole lives sound-tracked (and most of it too ironic to be random. I’m just saying), but honestly I don’t remember. Maybe there was only a sweet silence and the spit of grease on the grill.

“How’s that?” the girl asked. “Don’t tell me to be quiet. I’m just making more space for you.” She pushed the table itself over, swung it to one side, dropped it. “Better?” She raised her voice. “Can everyone please leave the room so my boyfriend has more space? He needs a fucking lot of space.” She slammed her chair down onto the pile of catsup and dishes. More sounds of breakage and a sudden waft of coffee.

The rest of us were frozen—forks halfway to our mouths, spoons dipped in our soups, the way people were found after the eruption of Vesuvius.

“Don’t do this, baby,” her boyfriend said once, but she was doing it and he didn’t bother to repeat himself. She moved to another table, empty except for a tray with dirty dishes. There, she methodically broke everything that could be broken, threw everything that could be thrown. A saltshaker spun across the floor to my foot.

A young man rose from his seat, telling her, with a slight stutter, to take a chill pill. She threw a spoon that bounced audibly off his forehead. “Don’t side with assholes,” she said. Her voice was very not chill.

He sank back, eyes wide. “I’m okay,” he assured the room at large, but he sounded unconvinced. And then surprised. “Holy shit! I’ve been assaulted.”

“This is just the shit I can’t take,” the boyfriend said. He was a big guy, with a thin face, loose jeans, and a long coat. Nose like a knife. “You go ahead and tear it up, you psycho bitch. Just give me back the key to my place first.”

She swung another chair, missing my head by maybe four feet—I’m being charitable; it seemed like a lot less—striking my table and upsetting it. I grabbed my glass and plate. My books hit the floor with a loud slap. “Come and get it,” she told him.

It struck me funny, a cook’s invitation over a pile of broken plates, and I laughed once, convulsively, a strange duck-like hoot that made everyone turn. And then I stopped laughing, because it was no laughing matter, and everyone turned back. Through the glass walls I could see some people on the quad who’d noticed the commotion and were watching. A threesome on their way in for lunch stopped short at the door.

“Don’t think I won’t.” He took a few steps in her direction. She scooped up a handful of catsup-stained sugar cubes and threw them.

“I’m finished,” he said. “We’re finished. I’m putting your shit in the hallway and I’m changing the locks.” He turned and she threw a glass, which bounced off his ear. He missed a step, staggered, touched the spot with one hand, checked his fingers for blood. “You owe me for gas,” he said without looking back. “Mail it.” And he was gone.

There was a moment’s pause as the door closed. Then the girl turned on the rest of us. “What are you losers looking at?” She picked up one of the chairs and I couldn’t tell if she was going to put it back or throw it. I don’t think she’d decided.

A campus policeman arrived. He approached me cautiously, hand on his holster. Me! Standing above my toppled table and chair, still holding my harmless glass of milk and my plate with the harmless half-eaten grilled cheese sandwich. “Just put it down, honey,” he said, “and sit for a minute.” Put it down where? Sit where? Nothing in my vicinity was upright but me. “We can talk about this. You can tell me what’s going on. You’re not in any trouble yet.”

“Not her,” the woman behind the counter told him. She was a large woman, and old—forty or more—with a beauty mark on her upper lip and eyeliner collecting in the corners of her eyes. You all act like you own the place, she’d said to me once, on another occasion, when I sent back a burger for more cooking. But you just come and go. You don’t even think how I’m the one who stays.

“The tall one,” she told the cop. She pointed, but he was paying no attention, so intent on me and whatever my next move would be.

“Calm down,” he said again, soft and friendly. “You’re not in any trouble yet.” He stepped forward, passing right by the girl with the braid and the chair. I saw her eyes behind his shoulder.

“Never a policeman when you need one,” she said to me. She smiled and it was a nice smile. Big white teeth. “No rest for the wicked.” She hoisted the chair over her head. “No soup for you.” She launched it away from me and the cop, toward the door. It landed on its back.

When the policeman turned to look, I dropped my plate and my fork. I honestly didn’t mean to. The fingers of my left hand just unclenched all of a sudden. The noise spun the cop back to me.

I was still holding my glass, half full of milk. I raised it a little, as if proposing a toast. “Don’t do it,” he said, a whole lot less friendly now. “I’m not playing around here. Don’t you fucking test me.”

And I threw the glass onto the floor. It broke and splashed milk over one of my shoes and up into my sock. I didn’t just let it go. I threw that glass down as hard as I could.

Two

FORTY MINUTES LATER, the psycho bitch and I were tucked like ticks into the back of a Yolo County police car, the matter now being way too big for the guileless campus cops. Handcuffed, too, which hurt my wrists a great deal more than I’d ever imagined it would.

Being arrested had seriously improved the woman’s mood. “I told him I wasn’t fucking around,” she said, which was almost exactly what the campus cop had also said to me, only more in sorrow than in triumph. “So glad you decided to come with. I’m Harlow Fielding. Drama department.”

No shit.

“I never met a Harlow before,” I said. I meant a first name Harlow. I’d met a last name Harlow.

“Named after my mother, who was named after Jean Harlow. Because Jean Harlow had beauty and brains and not because Gramps was a dirty old man. Not even. But what good did beauty and brains do her? I ask you. Like she’s this great role model?”

I knew nothing about Jean Harlow except that she was maybe in Gone With the Wind, which I’d never seen nor ever wanted to see. That war is over. Get over it. “I’m Rosemary Cooke.”

“Rosemary for remembrance,” Harlow said. “Awesome. Totally, totally charmed.” She slid her arms under her butt and then under her legs so her cuffed wrists ended up twisted in front of her. If I’d been able to do the same, we could have shaken hands, as seemed to be her intention, but I couldn’t.

We were taken then to the county jail, where this same maneuver created a sensation. A number of policemen were called to watch as Harlow obligingly squatted and stepped over her cuffed hands and back again several times. She deflected their enthusiasm with a winning modesty. “I have very long arms,” she said. “I can never find sleeves that fit.”

Our arresting officer’s name was Arnie Haddick. When Officer Haddick took off his hat, his hair was receding from his forehead in a clean, round curve that left his features nicely uncluttered, like a happy face.

He removed our cuffs and turned us over to ...

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