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Karen Joy Fowler’s What I Didn’t See

Karen Joy Fowler is probably best known for her 2005 saucy, satirical bestseller The Jane Austen Book Club, published by Plume and made into a film, although her just published novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, has garnered fabulous reviews and should be headed for prizes. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is strange, dark and wondrous, qualities in abundance in her lesser known story collection What I Didn’t See (2010).

Publishers, if they will risk publishing a story collection at all, tend to want stories to be linked or at least to follow the same style and theme, but Karen Joy Fowler and her press, Small Beer, give an airy Pshaw! to that notion. These stories refuse to link themselves to each other—there are tales about Lincoln’s assassination, a boy raised by coyotes, an African safari; there’s a short memoir and a fairytale and a story about a cult where people believe they can live forever. They do all share Fowler’s intelligent voice and dry sense of humor. The narratives tend to start out reasonably. Her writing is careful, precise and measured. The conflict clear right from the beginning. We feel safe.

And then, the stories begin to twist. I mean really twist. As in, what you thought was the conflict isn’t the conflict at all; as in, you thought you were in a historical realist story but actually it’s about touristic time travel. Reading a Karen Joy Fowler story reminds me of the experience of watching Game of Thrones—at the end of the first season the person I thought was the hero summarily got his head chopped off. I thought I was watching a television genre in which a happily ever after for the hero was assured. It was thrilling to see the rules suddenly pulled out from under me. That’s how it is to read a Karen Joy Fowler story. Except, of course, Fowler is more subtle, more acerbic. But still, her strongest allegiance is to surprise.

I don’t want to ruin the pleasure of the surprise in What I Didn’t See, so I’ll just take one story as an example. The first in the collection, one of my favorites, “The Pelican Bar,” begins on the fifteenth birthday of Norah, a typically irascible teenage girl from an upper-middleclass American family. Her mother thinks she is ungrateful and uses the word fuck too much, thus doesn’t deserve a birthday celebration, so it is “all a big surprise” when she is thrown a party, given an ipod and two hundred dollar jeans, fed grilled chicken and corn. Afterwards, Norah’s friends sneak into her house and they do mushrooms. Norah describes her trip this way: “the whole bedroom took a little skip sideways and broke open like an egg.” This is also a perfect description of what is apt to happen in a Fowler story, and what does happen to Norah the very next morning, when a man and a woman wake Norah up and take her away. As they handcuff Norah into their car, her mother sobs, “This is only because we love you. You were on a really dangerous path.”  Then her mother returns all Norah’s birthday presents for a refund. Norah is flown to her new home, “an old motel,” a reform school of sorts in the tropics run by Mama Strong.

When she meets her at the entrance, Mama Strong tells Norah, “Now I am your mother…But not like your other mother.” These lines call up another incredibly creepy story of injustice to children, Lucy Clifford’s “The New Mother,” a nineteenth century tale in which two girls mildly misbehave and are punished when their mother is replaced by a monstrous “other mother;” it’s also reminiscent of Coraline by Neil Gaimen, as well as all the wicked stepmother fairytales.

But Norah’s “new home” also uncomfortably calls up contemporary images of detention centers, of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and extraordinary rendition. She hears screaming at night, girls disappear, there’s a mysterious blood-soaked towel in the shower, no one is allowed to speak; there is a room called TAPS, solitary confinement where staff torture the children, but Norah is unmoored by a common torture technique—the light is never turned off at night. “The no dark was making Norah crazy.”

At first it seems the story’s central conflict is a contest of wills between Norah and Mama Strong. But Mama Strong wins early and easily. She has all the power. She leaves Norah with “no deep left.” Except The Pelican Bar. Norah finds out that nearby there is a beautiful tourist restaurant called The Pelican Bar, and she holds onto the fantasy of this edenic place as her only secret, a last vestige of selfhood and hope.

Last spring Karen Joy Fowler came to read at the university where I teach, and agreed to visit my advanced fiction class. We discussed “The Pelican Bar” before she arrived. Norah is finally let out on her eighteenth birthday.  She finds the Pelican Bar and “It is the best place in the world,” but she wants to tell the other tourists that “not four miles away children were being starved and terrified.” In perhaps the darkest moment of the story, Norah doesn’t speak, because “probably they already knew.” Two men pass her on the beach and she’s afraid they are there to take her back to Mama Strong’s, but they don’t. Norah thinks, “Maybe they were human and maybe not.” One of my students wondered what that line meant. I said I thought it was a metaphor—the story brought into question what it means to be human if people can treat each other so cruelly. When Karen Joy Fowler arrived we continued the discussion. Fowler told us that the story was based on an actual reform school for children. And she also said that perhaps the two men on the beach were not human, were something else. Perhaps Mama Strong was not human either.

So, not just a metaphor, actual aliens. I thought about the title, What I Didn’t See. I flipped back through the story and finally did see—the woman who originally takes Norah away has “nictitating eyes,” Norah tells Mama Strong at one point, “This isn’t a place where humans belong,” and Mama Strong answers, “So you are human but not me? Maybe so.”

But don’t imagine that Fowler is letting humans off the hook. Mama Strong says, “Humans do everything we did. Humans do more.” Fowler is helping us to see that anything is possible. She is telling the truth, but like Emily Dickinson, telling it slant. She’s inviting us to take a little skip sideways. She’s breaking the world open like an egg.

Micah Perks is the author of a novel, We Are Gathered Here, and a memoir, Pagan Time, about growing up on a commune in the Adirondack Wilderness. Pagan Time is an audiobook from audible, an ebook, and has been translated into Korean. Her short stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Epoch, Zyzzyva, Tin House and The Rumpus, amongst many journals and anthologies. Her memoir piece, A Girl All Alone In The Woods: Cheryl Strayed, My Daughter and Me, will be out from Shebooks this year. She’s won an NEA, a Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts grant, two Pushcart Prize nominations, and several  residencies at the Blue Mountain Center. She lives with her family in Santa Cruz and co-directs the creative writing program at UCSC. More info and work at micahperks.com

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