Animal magnetism: PEN/Faulkner winner Karen Joy Fowler discusses ethics, experiments and the novel she was always meant to write

Fowler's new novel challenges our deepest preconceptions about family, love and parenthood.

The author Karen Joy Fowler, who has just won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, 2014. David Levenson / Getty Images / April 2014

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“I think we all wonder from time to time how normal we are. I hope that’s not just me. Sometimes you’re at a dinner party, you say something and there’s a startled silence. You realise, we don’t all feel that way.”

If ever a novel and a novelist unravelled received ideas of normality, then that novel is We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – which has just won the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction – and the novelist is the American Karen Joy Fowler. Best known for The Jane Austen Book Club, the 64-year-old Fowler has trumped that popular success with a story that challenges our deepest preconceptions about family, love and parenthood – and even raises fundamental questions of what it means to be human.

The book is impossible to discuss without mentioning a narrative-changing twist that occurs early in the action. But it says much for the brilliant simplicity of Fowler’s idea and her prodigious gifts as a storyteller that even revealing the surprise won’t ruin one of the most extraordinary works of recent years.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is narrated by Rosemary Cooke, an introverted college student drifting aimlessly through life. As her enigmatic story hesitantly unfurls, we learn that her isolation owes much to emotional wounds inflicted during an unconventional upbringing. Her father is a scientist who studies animal behaviour, her mother is traumatised, her brother Lowell has gone AWOL and her sister Fern has vanished entirely – the implication being that this disappearance lies at the heart of the Cooke family’s dysfunction.

However, on page 77 Rosemary calmly reveals that Fern, far from being human, was actually a chimpanzee inserted into the family as an experiment run by her father.

As so often with ideas that beggar belief, the roots of Fowler’s fiction are not only real but deeply personal. In this We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a departure. “I don’t think of myself as an author who writes autobiographical material. I try to move as far away as I can from myself. But it’s too exhausting to make up everything. I do tend to use settings that I know. If I’m making up the setting, I use characters that I know. I pull from all parts of my life.”

The initial moment of inspiration was a conversation with her daughter, a marine biologist by training, more than a decade before. “My daughter gave me the idea on the millennial new year. That’s how long I have been thinking about it. She said I should think what it would be like to be that child, whose father thought it was appropriate to use your childhood as a psychological experiment.”

The subject of that discussion in 1999 was also close to home: Fowler’s father, who, like his granddaughter, was an animal behaviourist. “My father died before my daughter was born so he’s kind of a mythical figure in the family. He worked with rats studying learning processes. This involved running rats through mazes to see how they learnt to make the right turn not the wrong turn.”

One of the first experiments involving a chimpanzee being integrated into a human family was conducted by a colleague of Fowler’s father – something Fowler didn’t learn until later. “My dad did not work with the monkeys. I remember being relieved about that. There was no way to pretend that the monkeys were happy. The reason I wasn’t allowed in was that if you went anywhere near their cages they would try to grab you. They would bite you. They were clearly furious, miserable and possibly insane.”

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves draws heavily on Fowler’s memories of her father’s laboratory. “I spent a fair amount of time as a child in the rat lab where there were cages and cages. I was allowed to take them out and play. I always say there can be few people who get the nostalgic hit off rat cages that I do.” She is quick, however, to draw a line between the reckless moral myopia of Rosemary’s father and the integrity of her own. While she can detect darker undertones in her memories – confusion about why some rats were beloved pets, while others were perceived as vermin – few of these unsettling subtexts were glimpsed at the time. “The rat lab was a very happy place – in my head. I have since read that often the rats are starved to motivate them in the mazes. I have no idea if the rats in my father’s lab were starved. They appeared happy. Or at least as a child, it was easy not to imagine that they were unhappy.”

Man’s inhumanity to animals, even when in the pursuit of protecting humanity itself, is a central narrative path in the novel’s bewildering moral maze. Lowell, for example, responds to Fern’s disappearance by joining a band of animal rights activists who see violent protest as a justifiable way to oppose vivisection. The novel’s complex play of moral viewpoints reflects Fowler’s own ambivalence. She admires Lowell’s political passion, but weighs this against the sacrifices he makes and compels others to make on his behalf.

“I came up through college in the 1960s. I was too young to participate but old enough to care a great deal about the Civil Rights Movement. I am very interested in the costs of political activism and of no political activism. One of the things that has always struck me is that the families of the great political activists generally pay the price. You are often not taking good care of your own children.”

While Fowler clearly abhors the use of animals in scientific research, her dismay cannot blind her entirely to the medical advantages she enjoys everyday. “I wanted to be fair. My feelings about a lot of the experiments are very mixed. The casualness with which animals have been used and discarded is very troubling to me – in the food industries as well as scientific research. War Horse is almost unendurable. My strongest feeling is that we should not do things we cannot bear to look at. If it all has to be hidden away to go on, then it shouldn’t happen.”

When I ask whether sheer self-interest will always overcome even our deepest moral qualms, Fowler zigzags between her own unresolved convictions. “I certainly don’t count myself outside that paradigm. If it’s [between] my child and some lab research animal, I am not going to have a hard time making that decision. But having said that, I’m going to want to know the research is beneficial and that the level of suffering has been reduced as much as possible.”

Fowler is hopeful that alternatives, computer modelling for example, will soon provide an alternative to animal testing. But even this optimism yields more moral quandaries. “Having said that, this whole idea that we can concoct meat in a lab, which has never even been an animal, is a deeply creepy one.”

The questions posed by the novel have already inspired complex reactions. These include a letter written by a woman whose family participated in the original chimpanzee experiment – although she was born after the chimpanzee was removed. “She made it pretty clear that she wasn’t going to read my book. She was very nice. But she wanted to say that her family had been completely and utterly destroyed by this experiment. As she went into detail, it wasn’t clear to me whether the experiment or the father running the experiment had destroyed the family.”

Despite her joyful middle name, Fowler’s disenchantment with humanity and the human condition, no matter how compassionately expressed, is hard to miss. “I had a very happy childhood,” she says. “The idea that humans behave as badly as humans sometimes behave came as an enormous shock. I have never quite got over it. The only alternative is to find it funny.”

Fowler’s self-protective sense of humour might be vital for the survival of her optimism, but in the past it has caused problems for those closest to her. “I think in general the more distressed I am about something the funnier I get. I have friends actually call me up having read some story which has distressed them in some way. They’ve got it all wrong. I can’t be miserable in my actual life and in my imaginary life as well. If I am writing a miserable story then I’m in a good place. It’s when I am funny that I need this melancholy.”

Quite where Fowler is right now is open to debate. Two years after finishing the book she is still to move on to a new project. This may be because her daughter has stopped providing those handy award-winning ideas. “As she has decided to be a writer herself, I think there will sadly be no more great ideas coming from her. She will be keeping them for herself in future.”

But it seems that We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves has simply left its creator bereft. “This book drew deeper on me in some ways,” Fowler says. This, weirdly, is also a good thing. And if I have learnt any­thing from Karen Joy Fowler, it’s that nothing is simple. Even success. “Ursula Le Guin, in a lovely quote, said ‘it was the book I was meant to write’. I think I feel that way about it. I feel that connection to it. What does one write next when one has written the book one was meant to?”

James Kidd is a freelance reviewer based in London.