Here’s an excerpt from Karen Joy Fowler’s latest novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. As a reminder, it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2014 and won the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award.
As part of leaving Bloomington for college and my brand new start, I’d made a careful decision to never ever tell anyone about my sister, Fern. Back in those college days I never spoke of her and seldom thought of her. If anyone asked about my family, I admitted to two parents, still married, and one brother, older, who traveled a lot. Not mentioning Fern was first a decision, and later a habit, hard and painful even now to break. Even now, way off in 2012, I can’t abide someone else bringing her up. I have to ease into it. I have to choose my moment.
Though I was only five when she disappeared from my life, I do remember her. I remember her sharply — her smell and touch, scattered images of her face, her ears, her chin, her eyes. Her arms, her feet, her fingers. But I don’t remember her fully, not the way Lowell does.
Lowell is my brother’s real name. Our parents met at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona at a high school summer science camp. “I’d come to see the heavens,” our father always said. “But the stars were in her eyes,” a line that used to please and embarrass me in equal measure. Young geeks in love.
I would think better of myself now if, like Lowell, I’d been angry about Fern’s disappearance, but it seemed too dangerous just then to be mad at our parents and I was frightened instead. There was also a part of me relieved, and powerfully, shamefully so, to be the one kept and not the one given away. Whenever I remember this, I try to also remember that I was only five years old. I’d like to be fair here, even to myself. It would be nice to get all the way to forgiveness, though I haven’t managed it yet and don’t know that I ever will. Or ever should.
Those weeks I spent with our grandparents in Indianapolis still serve as the most extreme demarcation in my life, my personal Rubicon. Before, I had a sister. After, none.
Before, the more I talked, the happier our parents seemed. After, they joined the rest of the world in asking me to be quiet. I finally became so. But not for quite some time and not because I was asked.
Before, my brother was part of the family. After, he was just killing time until he could be shed of us.
Before, many things that happened are missing in my memory or else stripped-down, condensed to their essentials like fairy tales. Once upon a time there was a house with an apple tree in the yard and a creek and a moon-eyed cat. After, for a period of several months, I seem to remember a lot and much of it with a suspiciously well-lit clarity. Take any memory from my early childhood and I can tell you instantly whether it happened while we still had Fern or after she’d gone. I can do this because I remember which me was there. The me with Fern or the me without? Two entirely different people.
Still, there are reasons for suspicion. I was only five. How is it possible that I remember, as I seem to, a handful of conversations word for word, the exact song on the radio, the particular clothes I was wearing? Why are there so many scenes I remember from impossible vantage points, so many things I picture from above, as if I’d climbed the curtains and was looking down on my family? And why is there one thing that I remember distinctly, living color and surround-sound, but believe with all my heart never occurred? Bookmark that thought. We’ll come back to it later.
I remember often being told to be quiet, but I seldom remember what I was saying at the time. As I recount things, this lacuna may give you the erroneous impression that I already wasn’t talking much. Please assume that I am talking continuously in all the scenes that follow until I tell you that I’m not.
Our parents, on the other hand, had shut their mouths and the rest of my childhood took place in that odd silence. They never reminisced about the time they had to drive halfway back to Indianapolis because I’d left Dexter Poindexter, my terry-cloth penguin (threadbare, ravaged by love – as who amongst us is not) in a gas station restroom, although they often talk about the time our friend Marjorie Weaver left her mother-in-law in the exact same place. Better story, I grant you.
I know from Grandma Fredericka, and not our parents, that I once went missing for long enough that the police were called and it turned out I’d tailed Santa Claus out of a department store and into a tobacco shop where he was buying cigars and he gave me the ring off one, so the police being called was just an added bonus on what must have already been a pretty good day.
I know from Grandma Donna, and not our parents, that I once buried a dime in some cake batter as a surprise and one of the graduate students chipped her tooth on it and everybody thought Fern had done it, until I spoke up, so brave and honest. Not to mention generous since the dime had been my own.
So who knows what revelries, what romps my memories have taken with so little corroboration to restrain them? If you don’t count the taunting at school, then the only people who talked much about Fern were my Grandma Donna, until Mom made her stop, and my brother Lowell, until he left us. Each had too obvious an agenda to be reliable – Grandma wishing to shield our mother from any share of blame, Lowell stropping his stories into knives.
Once upon a time there was a family with two daughters, and a mother and father who’d promised to love them both exactly the same.
Our last session until Fall is this Thursday! Thankfully, we’re closing the year with the amazing Karen Joy Fowler.
Karen Joy Fowler is the author of six novels and three short story collections. The Jane Austen Book Club spent thirteen weeks on the New York Times bestsellers list and was a New York Times Notable Book. Fowler’s previous novel, Sister Noon, was a finalist for the 2001 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction. Her debut novel, Sarah Canary, was a New York Times Notable Book, as was her second novel, The Sweetheart Season.
In addition, Sarah Canary won the Commonwealth medal for best first novel by a Californian, and was listed for the Irish Times International Fiction Prize as well as the Bay Area Book Reviewers Prize. Fowler’s short story collection Black Glass won the World Fantasy Award in 1999, and her collection What I Didn’t See won the World Fantasy Award in 2011.
Fowler and her husband, who have two grown children and five grandchildren, live in Santa Cruz, California.
Stay tuned for samples of Fowler’s work!
Don’t talk to me of love. I’ve had an earful
And I get tearful when I’ve downed a drink or two.
I’m one of your talking wounded.
I’m a hostage. I’m maroonded.
But I’m in Paris with you.
Yes I’m angry at the way I’ve been bamboozled
And resentful at the mess I’ve been through.
I admit I’m on the rebound
And I don’t care where are we bound.
I’m in Paris with you.
Do you mind if we do not go to the Louvre
If we say sod off to sodding Notre Dame,
If we skip the Champs Elysées
And remain here in this sleazy
Old hotel room
Doing this and that
To what and whom
Learning who you are,
Learning what I am.
Don’t talk to me of love. Let’s talk of Paris,
The little bit of Paris in our view.
There’s that crack across the ceiling
And the hotel walls are peeling
And I’m in Paris with you.
Don’t talk to me of love. Let’s talk of Paris.
I’m in Paris with the slightest thing you do.
I’m in Paris with your eyes, your mouth,
I’m in Paris with… all points south.
Am I embarrassing you?
I’m in Paris with you.
– James Fenton
Author and poet James Fenton will be joining us tomorrow for our second-to-last Writers Series.
James Fenton was born in Lincoln in 1949 and educated at Magdalen College, Oxford where he won the Newdigate Prize for poetry. He has worked as political journalist, drama critic, book reviewer, war correspondent, foreign correspondent and columnist. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and was Oxford Professor of Poetry for the period 1994-99. Fenton received the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 2007, and in 2015 won thePEN Pinter Prize.
“i’d like a little flashlight” is a poem from Rachel Zucker’s collection The Pedestrians.
A native of New York, she has lived in the city for almost her entire life, which has greatly influenced her poetry.
“Being a New Yorker is very intrinsic to my personality,” Zucker told Art Beat. “New York has always shown up in all my poems, but in [The Pedestrians], I was really interested in being more explicit about it and not just writing about New York, but writing in a way that somehow mimicked the experience of living in New York.”
i’d like a little flashlight& I’d like to get naked & into bed & be
HOT radiating heat from inside these
blankets do nothing to keep out the out keep
my vitals in some drafty body I’ve got in & out
in all directions I’d like to get naked into bed but
HOT on this early winter afternoon already
dusky grim & not think of all the ways
I’ve gone about the world & shown myself
a fool shame poking holes in my thinned carapace
practically lacy woefully feminine I’d like to get
naked into bed & feel if not hot then weightless I
once was there a sensory-deprivation tank
Madison WI circa 1992 I paid money for that
perfectly body-temperature silent pitch-dark tank
to do what? play dead & not die? that was before
e-mail before children before I knew anything
just the deaths of a few loved ones which were poisoned nuts
of swallowed grief but nothing of life
or life giving which cuts open the self bursting busted
unsolvable I’d like to get naked into the bed of my life
but hot HOT my little flicker-self trumped up somehow
blind & deaf to all the dampening misery of my friends’ woes
I’d like a little flashlight to write poems w/ this lousy day
not this poem I’m writing under the mostly flat
blaze of bulb but a poem written with the light itself
a tiny fleeting love poem to life a poem that says
Look here a bright spot of life oh look another!
Rachel Zucker is the author, most recently, of a memoir, MOTHERs, and a double collection of prose and poetry, The Pedestrians. Her book Museum of Accidents was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. She received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in 2013.
“Don’t Say Anything Beautiful Kiss Me” is a piece from Zucker’s Museum of Accidents.
if my lips were rose petals they’d taste too bitter.
If my cheeks were apples they’d crawl with apple worms.
If my eyes were stars they’d be dead by the time you saw them.
If I moved you like the moon I’d disappear once a month.
If my teeth were Chiclets you’d want to chew on them and spit them out.
If my hands were birds you couldn’t hold them; they’d peck you bloody.
Is my skin alabaster? Then it’s cold and hard and one day someone will skin me,
make me into a cold hard box tinged with pink or yellow, to hold unguents, then
how will you love me?
If my vagina is a cool, dark forest you’ll certainly be lost, you have no sense of direction.
If my vagina is a cave-watch out! It’s prone to seismic shifts and avalanche.
If my vagina is a river of honey: orange, lavender, fine herbs, hazelnut, all too sweet.
If my ears are shells I can’t hear you, only the ocean anyway.
And if my voice is music, it is unintelligible.
Don’t say anything.
I am not a flower, but a body with rules and predictable, cellular qualities.
My eyelashes and fingernails and skin and spit are organized by proteins
designed to erode at a pre-encoded date and time, no matter what you do or do
not do to me-
I am remarkably like an animal.
More like a heifer than a sunrise, I want to bite, stroke, swallow you so stop lying
there trying to think of something to say and trying to understand me.
I am the body next to but unlike yours.
You already know me. You already know what I’m made of.”
— Rachel Zucker.