This is going to be a great break from writing syllabi and eating sour patch kids. I’m either 12 or 62 this week. I just can’t get my shizzam together enough to plan it all. I learned earlier this week that instead of just a full 9th grade English block, I am now teaching Creative Writing, Newspaper, 9th grade English and 10th grade English. Yea, that’s right, HOLY FLYING COCKATOO. There will be lots of deep breathing and mirror dancing in my future. Don’t worry though, I’m a beast and even more luckily, my students are beasts with swag. We’re going to get through this. In the minutes between schooling, I’ve been reading We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler.
Two years ago (apparently), I read Sarah Canary, which was one of the most beautifully strange works of literary fiction I have ever read. Now I don’t want to throw around the world “literally” like all the critics are doing these days. If there isn’t a sentence in the novel that I want to devour and bore into my notebook like I’m carving literature, then that isn’t “literary fiction.” Literary fiction is meant to be poetic, people. That being said, just because an author writes a really strong, but slow, piece of literary fiction doesn’t mean all of their books will be literary fiction. This is the delightful line that Karen Joy Fowler has found. She has written books for the hungry and books for the masses. Neither are better than the other, but she can be on the New York Times Bestseller and become dusty on the bottom shelf of the short “F” section of fiction. I’m just kidding, bookstore employees so obviously Swifter the stiff spines of books.
What I loved about this book was that it followed every single rule and start-up that I learned in Creative Writing 101. A lovely woman on Goodreads said, “Unlike most novelists, Karen Joy Fowler begins her eighth work of fiction smack-dab in the middle of the story.” Quite the opposite though, writers who are taught writing are taught to always start in the middle. No one wants to hear a story from the beginning. I can hear McCorkle saying, “This is how you hook them, Cassie, you start in the middle of the story. You start in the field, in the clearing, in the cellular store after the phone has been slammed against a bathroom wall, or dropped from the back deck. Start in the middle.” Rookiemag even wrote 10 rules for writers and the middle rule got stuck (guess where) at Number Four. She also uses that rule that says, if you can’t find anything to write about just tell them what’s happening in the year of your story or poem. The first week of college poetry writing, the professor had us write who we were in a sentence for each year.
1988: Womb-woven and jellied.
1993: Rubberband pigtails on the front stoop of a salty Florida morning.
2001: A thing, not a girl.
2006: Two feet dangling from a car window.
2013: Defining swag as an acronym.
I won’t harp on this though. There were so many things I loved about this book. I loved that the characters shared names with major literary heroines. I love that the family is fractured even in dialogue. I love that it’s not a traditional story and the effects of brief animal cruelty were more profound than seeing it on the television. When a writer can surpass the visual competitor, than she’s made it. I love all the parts, but the whole just wasn’t enough. I thought the journeys of the different characters were stereotypical and the end was predictable (as all happy endings are). I was just disappointed in how much this story could have been and just wasn’t. I think I was taking it too literally though because readers that I absolutely trust have loved this book.
It’s funny that Karen Joy Fowler states so obviously that she starts in the middle and the middle of this story drags and drags. Harlow’s character is suspiciously annoying even in her final act in the story. Actually, that final act in the story was completely undeserved. She didn’t do enough as a character to insure her space in the story as such a vital component. It would have been just as dire and emotional without the character of Harlow at all. And believe me, I understand devastation coming out in the oddest places. In this story, it comes out in the lost luggage and in my personal story of college numbness, it came out in my locking my keys in my car about 11 times in one year.
While I’m going to anger enough people already, I just want to point out that this is NOT as much Fern’s story as it is Rosie’s story. Fern and Rosie are sisters, but Rosie’s story is nothing without Fern. Fern’s story is made caged by Rosie. Fern is drawn into the story only when it is important to Rosie’s discovery. I’m not sure I’m getting at what I’m trying to say. Rosie needs Fern to complete her story, but has removed her. Fern needs Rosie to end her story. Still not there, but maybe my heads just not in it at the moment. It’s clear that Fern is an intricate part to the family issues, but she is given a disproportionate amount of space and as her character is (without ruining it) a bit of a strange duck, she isn’t given a voice. I absolutely refuse to accept that Rosie’s voice is meant to be Fern’s voice.
One thing that you can learn from this story that you won’t learn in Creative Writing 101 is how to write the truth by showing the lies and forgottens of all of the characters. Somewhere between the hazy memories, hiding, big moves, and shady friendships, there’s a truth of love between a family that had to give each other up in order to find each other again. (That may be the corniest finish to a review I’ve ever written. This wasn’t one of my best anyway).