When I was in my first (and, come to think, only) year in the dorms, I had a friend down the hall who was Swiss. By which I mean she had Swiss parents, and her first language was French; she was otherwise American. She was raised, however, in a small Wisconsin town, if not from birth, then from a very young age. She liked to tell this story about her parents taking her to the zoo as a young girl, her French still the primary language, and shouting at the seals, “Le phoque! Le phoque!” You can imagine the consternation of small town Wisconsin when confronted by a girl yelling, “Le fuck!” which is more or less what the French word for seal sounds like.
We didn’t have much in the way of video stores on campus — this is back in the dark ages, before Netflix, or even DVDs, come to think of it — so we were mostly stuck with the selection at the dorm kiosk (which I ran on Saturday and Thursday; a story for another time) which was not good, or the selections at the local library. The library mostly had art films, documentaries about The War, and early cinema weirdness. I can thank the lack of selection for my actually sitting down and watching stuff like Vampyr, Metropolis, and Battleship Potemkin. My Swiss friend went in for the French art house stuff at the libs, as she actually spoke the language, and knew more than your average bear about French cinema, her upbringing being what it was.
So I watched a series of French films with her — a trilogy, I think, but my memory is a little hazy. They were in an essay style popular (I think) in the 70s. French people chatted and had upheavals of the lunching sort, interspersed with cards that informed the viewer of the philosophical import of the scene. She and I also had a thing where we’d go in together on a bottle of liquor we’d never tried before, purchased by another friend’s upperclass boyfriend with a car and a sense of capitalist opportunity: Everclear (not legal in my home state), stomach-churning gin (which put me off a fine alcohol for years), or, memorably, peach schnapps (I didn’t drink in high school, so I hadn’t learned this lesson yet).
I have this vision, no doubt manufactured, of us sitting in her room sipping a tragedy in the making, watching French films and arguing. I remember quite vividly when she was yelling about some character in the essay film — you know, the Italian woman? — and I was like, what are you even talking about, Italian woman? She blinked at me with the slow blink of the inebriated. You know, the woman with the Italian accent? The one having an affair with the other guy, the husband? Okay, I said, I know who you mean now, but how did you know she was Italian? Couldn’t you hear it in her accent? She asked. No, I most decidedly could not.
She had an entrance into the nuances of the film that I simply did not, raised as I was with English only. I couldn’t hear the accent because all I heard was foreignness, concentrating hard on the philosophical placards and the translations over the lilt of another tongue in a character’s speech. Since then, I’ve caught this lilt in a couple of movie characters in languages foreign to me — Ah Ping in In the Mood for Love, who sounds so different from everyone else, for example — but I couldn’t tell you what this means, exactly. Someone who spoke Chinese — or maybe more importantly, was raised with an understanding of Chinese cultural politics — could explain the inexact, interpersonal meaning to me, but some of it would end up being “le phoque” shouted at seals.
Which is my long-winded, digressive way of getting at We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. There’s something about the narrator that’s off, which is not to say I didn’t completely love her wry, understated anecdotal style, or her loopy, sedimentary storytelling style. Her awkwardness and self-doubt were disarming and lovable. the way a story told by the gawky and odd can take the shine of comedy in retrospect. Comedy happens to other people, as they say; it’s tragedy when it happens to you. She knows how to split the difference between bathos and rhetoric like a champ. She takes the little philosophical placards, and doesn’t so much shred them as fold them into accented shapes that you can’t access through language.
Good gravy, what the holy hell am I on about? The tough thing about We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a spoiler which is so central to the book’s bookness that it stops me up, in any language. You have to meet the narrator and stew in her thoughts long enough to understand her accent and where it comes from, her foreignness despite being a fairly average girl from a flyover state. You have to get good and drunk and argue what all that accent might mean, whatever meaning means, and you have to do it grappling with the way personal anecdote, or even possibly memoir, is a slippery, personal delivery mechanism for whatever essayish philosophy, insofar as as any of our lives can exemplify an argument.
And I’m at it again, twisty sentence fuckery — or possibly phoquery — blathering and bloviating when I should just get to it. Here’s one thing: the plural of anecdote is not data, as the scientists rightly say. But as a talking ape, the force of the anecdote has its place in rhetoric. I read We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves because it was one of the nominees for the Nebula this year. It took me a long time to accept this as science fictional. Doesn’t this all exist in the here and now? Isn’t this the experience of some few — some very few, admittedly; but still, it moves? I eventually looped around, after starting in the middle, the way the narrator does, into acceptance.
There are levels of foreignness beyond the dorm floor Tower of Babel that occurs when we all get drunk on unfamiliar scotch — one girl lapsing into the Spanish of her native language, another’s Southie accent thickening to incomprehension, the French, the Wisconsin, all of us speaking the language of our homes at each other in some kind of bonding exercise that won’t be remembered with clarity the next day. But we’re all human, our accents notwithstanding. The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis has been thoroughly discredited. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t resonate at some level, the one that looks around after the party has ended and wonders at our profound miscommunications with those closest to us, let alone the strangers, the neighbors, the acquaintances. Alien isn’t just alien, in the end; it’s the familiar. Which is the worst and best thing about it, the end.