Friday, April 20, 2007

The Unreliable Narrator

As our interest and sophistication in reading and writing grow, our curiosity about motivation in the participants in nonfiction and fiction grows.

Early in my reading career, it would not have occurred to me to question, much less think about agendas and motives in the work I read, wishing instead to immerse myself in the now-ness, the immediacy of the narrative in which I sought to immerse myself. Although I had distinct loyalties in narratives well outside my contemporary horizons, I seldom spent the time to think through the longer-term implications of why characters behaved as they did. 

 It was enough to root for Ivanhoe and against Sir Reginald Front d'Boeuf in Scott's rousing epic, and although I was more culturally attuned to Rebecca, I saw no reason why Ivanhoe should not pursue the Lady Rowena instead of Rebecca. 

 Hey, now I think it could be a masterly romp to have had Ivanhoe drawn by the force of his gonads to Rebecca, even though in time the question would have come up, "So what about it, Willie (for that is what she would have called Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe), we gonna raise the kid Anglican or, you know?" Actually, she'd have been after him much sooner, quoting Leviticus at him within a few days of the birth of their first son. As in circumcision.As indeed, Rebecca would have been on Willie's case to have the deed done on himself.As in: "You mean--"?

"Yes," she said, "I mean--"

"Unh, can I have some time to think it over?"

Not until I reached high school, having been yanked about the country by forces beyond my control to such arcane places as New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Florida, did the agenda of the narrator become important to me. When it did, the result was momentous. The authors of a text on U.S. History which covered, among other things, a long-term battle variously referred to as The Civil War, The War Between the States, and The War of Northern Aggression, depending on which part of the country I happened to live in at the time, were all affiliated with universities in the South. Did this have anything to do, I wondered aloud, with the fact that the text was snarky about Federalism and more openly favoring the self-determination of the states?

Later at that same high school, I was introduced to the concept of journalism being objective. This was at a time when the elder Hearst, William Randolph, of Citizen Kane fame was alive and kicking. The clock began ticking, which is to say I began keeping score.

Another watermark moment came when, at the appropriate age of eighteen, I read Thomas Wolfe (not the one with the funky white suits) and, of all people, Ayn Rand. Mr. Wolfe had a lovely way with words but not such a lovely way with racism and sexism, nor did he reveal a significant sense of humor. Ms. Rand, especially in The Fountainhead, was clearly in better control but still leaning toward propaganda, which erupted into full view with Atlas Shrugged. She, too, it appeared, was left home when the rest of the writing class was taken on a field trip to view humor.

By now, a sense of the agenda--hidden or otherwise--of the narrator came down on my head as though I were out walking in a rainstorm without hat or umbrella, which leads me a fork in the road an author and a reader must take. Is the unreliable narrator deviously unreliable? (See Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?) Does the narrator have some hidden agenda? Or perhaps the narrator is lacking a clue, which is to say he or she is naive?

Becky Sharp, who narrates Thackeray's Vanity Fair is the quintessential pragmatist, her self-interest apparent from the get-go. Don Quixote of the eponymous saga is naive bordering on deluded; the protagonist of Jaroslav Hasek's lovely send-up of war and army life, The Good Soldier Schweik, is either a bumpkin, a shrewd master of his fate, or, as at least one other character calls him, a lunatic. Another novel with a nearly similar title, The Good Soldier, by Ford Maddox Ford, allows us to experience--don't worry, I won't spoil it for you--a remarkable irony, perpetrated on a seemingly reliable narrator.

The list of narrators with ambiguous agendas is seemingly endless, but none more splendidly illustrates such a powerful dramatic force in recent times as Mr. Stevens, the protagonist of Kazuo Ishiguro's memorable novel, The Remains of the Day. Loaded throughout with the technical pazazz of irony, ambiguity, humor, aching tragedy, and acutely realized characters, The Remains of the Day allows us the delicious luxury of seeing the tragedy of what might have been for Mr. Stevens, the sum total of what he got for what he gave, the opportunity to admire and like the man while still rendering harsh judgments about him.

It is no small thing to keep the narrator in mind as we read whatever it is we happen to be reading at the moment. This is oversight at its most important. What are the motives of those who present our news to us, our descriptions of scientific discovery, our entertainments, our representations of history.

Generations of Spaniards of a particular social class speak their language with a lisp because of the speech impediment and/or affectation of a member of the royal class, centuries ago. Foot fetishists may slather at the lore of foot binding in China, and some historians--undoubtedly male historians--may argue that the smaller the woman's foot, the greater was her beauty considered to be, but try telling that to the women who could scarcely get away. Don Imus says he was only trying to make a joke, William Randolph Hearst believed war sold newspapers, Jerry Springer says everyone loves a good verbal squabble, and Pat Robertson thinks AIDS is a celestial punishment rendered against the gay community.

In a real sense, we are all unreliable narrators. As writers, our reliability works in direct ratio to our vision of the worlds we attempt to depict and the persons we chose to populate the world. Nick Caraway, another naive narrator, says Gatsby was a romantic. I love the book, but take issue with Nick; I think Gatsby was a victim of the very system he bought into in order to win Daisy.

From time to time, in a classroom, I'll ask what I consider to be two significant questions: Who's telling your story? Why? Very often the answer is a row of bright, attractive faces, looking at me in wonderment. Why would anyone, they seem to be saying, ask such questions?

Somethings to consider: What did Virgil have in mind when he wrote The Aneid? What did the incumbent President of the United States have in mind when, on April 19, 2007, he offered his complete confidence in the Attorney General of the United States?

No comments: