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Telling the Big Secret

Karen Joy Fowler is Beside Herself

Sep. 15, 2013
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NPR promised that fans of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go—one of my three favorite novels—would adore Karen Joy Fowler’s latest, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (A Marian Wood Book/Putnam).

Well…no. And a comparison reveals why.

Each novel is written in the retrospective voice of a thirtyish woman. Each merely hints at its premise until the one-quarter mark—and each premise is brilliant. But whereas Ishiguro’s “reveal” is a jaw-dropping, fully realized scene (school “Guardian” Miss Lucy’s impromptu rainy-day address to her class), Fowler presents hers offhandedly, followed by: “Some of you…may feel it was irritatingly coy of me to have withheld [this].”

Well…yes. But more crucially, the narrator tells us the Big Secret, rather than inviting us to experience it ourselves. Though there are, of course, exceptions, the writing-class imperative “Show don’t tell,” generally holds true, as showing puts the reader “there.”

Ishiguro’s protagonist Kathy H. relates her life story chronologically, whereas Fowler’s Rosemary Cooke self-consciously “starts in the middle,” then alternates between, not two or three periods, but several. The effect is distancing—as is Rosemary’s habit of summarizing scenes and conversations, rather than letting them unfold in real time. As a result, we never lose awareness that we’re being told a story—and, thus, never lose ourselves in that story—so the supporting players fall varying degrees of flat: Rosemary’s parents, friends Harlow and Ezra, others whose names have, “tellingly,” slipped my mind. Only older siblings Lowell and Fern register…and less than they should: Fern is key, yet the structural sleight-of-hand robs us of knowing her as intimately as her sister does—a fatal failing.

Disjointed narratives can work; so can “telling”; so can backstory, but mostly they get in the way. Writing “in the moment” brings the present to light and to life in vivid detail then moves the reader forward to the next moment, thereby developing an ever-deepening A-to-Z “shared history” between characters and reader.

That’s what Ishiguro does, brilliantly, in Never Let Me Go. Conversely, while reading We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, I felt led by the nose from Point K to Point Q to Point D to Point N to, finally, “What’s the point?” Not for nothing does a puppet unexpectedly appear in the narrative; one makes one’s way through this novel rather like a marionette.

The next time Fowler conceives a superb concept, as she surely will, she should trust herself to develop it in a straightforward way—and trust her readers to actively engage in and care about it. Because we will.

As for this one, maybe they’ll fix it in a movie version. I hope so, for hidden in here somewhere is a deeply moving story.

Fowler will appear at Boswell Book Co. on Monday, Sept. 23, at 7 p.m.


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