Nashville’s All-City Read for 2014, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, is both heart-warming and heart-wrenching. From beginning to end, it simmers with feeling. Another hot current read – The Flamethrowers – explodes with action you didn’t see coming. Both novels feature radical experiments of the 1970’s and searing personal experiences.
In We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, the novel’s central character, Rosemary, grows up alongside a chimp adopted by her warm-hearted mother and psychologist father. The chimp – named Fern – is treated as both sister and psychological experiment, and Rosemary’s father studies how the girls learn and interact. Older brother Lowell and the grad students constantly coming and going round out a vibrant if messy home. “Sometimes it was encumbering, a monkey on my back,” Rosemary reflects, “but mostly I felt enlarged, as if what mattered in the end was not what Fern could do or what I could do, but the sum of it – Fern and me together. And me and Fern together, we could do almost anything. This, then, is the me I know – the human half of the fabulous, the fascinating, the phantasmagorical Cooke sisters.” There is of course a day of reckoning to come, in which choices must be made about what it means to be human, what it means to be an animal, and what it means to be a family. We are painfully reminded that decisions made with the best of intentions can have devastating consequences. The power of the story, and the art of its telling, allow Fowler room to make her case for animal rights without losing the reader.
Is there any case to be made against this compelling book? A novel strongly motivated by an injustice can run the risk of feeling heavy-handed. Whether this book possibly gets close to that line – at any point – would be a good book club question. Another question might be whether Rosemary’s voice feels a bit too chatty sometimes, as when she tells the reader, “Let’s just pause here for a moment to imagine how a person who felt imposed on by vampires back in 1979 feels today. And then, right back to my story.” These asides interrupt the narrative flow, it seems to me, rather than constituting an essential part of it. The way in which this novel succeeds is to my mind far greater than any minor issues with voice or tone: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves shows how families both create and in some ways destroy us; we end up like Rosemary’s terry-cloth penguin, Dexter Poindexter – “threadbare, ravaged by love.” Ursula LeGuin raves that “Fowler has written the book she has always had it in her to write. With all the quiet strangeness of her amazing Sarah Canary, and all the breezy wit and skill of her beloved Jane Austen Book Club, and with a new, urgent gravity, she tells the story of an American family. An unusual family – but aren’t all families unusual? A very American, an only-in-America family – and yet an everywhere family, whose children, parents, siblings, love one another very much, and damage one another badly.”
Karen Joy Fowler will speak at Nashville’s Downtown Public Library on Tuesday, April 1st, at 6:15, capping off this year’s All-City Read. Tickets can be reserved in advance at NashvillePublicLibrary.org.
The Flamethrowers requires a bit more patience in the beginning, but it heats up fast. We first meet the patriarch of the Valera family during World War I; he is a poor young Italian soldier at the time, and he kills a German with the headlamp from his motorbike. Fast forward to 1976, Reno, Nevada, where an adventurous young woman (later called “Reno”) sets the women’s world record for speed on a Valera brand motorcycle. The novel traces her path from Nevada to New York to Italy, a journey in which she becomes entangled with an artist 14 years her senior and later with a leader in an Italian workers’ rights group that considers violence an acceptable means of social protest. She finds herself in a world she did not exactly choose; that world explodes; she does not emerge unscathed. One of the surprising pleasures of The Flamethrowers is learning, along with the narrator, much about the art world in New York in the ‘70s and the contrasting lives of wealthy industrialists and impoverished workers in Italy during that time. You might not think you are interested in those topics; I certainly didn’t think I was. Rachel Kushner will convince you otherwise!
Widely hailed as one of the best books of 2013, The Flamethrowers has inspired breathless reviews from some exceptional authors and critics. Colum McCann, author of TransAtlantic and Let the Great World Spin, says that it “is one of the most thrilling and high-octane literary experiences I have had in a decade…DeLillo echoes here, as does Doctorow, as does Carey. Kushner is an extraordinary talent…I’d walk five hundred miles for her next book.” Karen Russell, author of one of my all-time favorite books, Swamplandia, writes that “Kushner is a genius prose stylist, and her Reno is one of the most fully realized protagonists I’ve ever encountered, moving fluidly from the fringe of the fringe moment to the center of the action.” The Flamethrowers might be the opposite of a beach read; it requires a certain attentiveness, and has a certain weight and density. It also shimmers and burns.
Note to book clubs: each of these novels is lighting up the bookshelves in paperback!