Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Unreliable Narrator, Unreliable Reader

In keeping with recent thoughts about the writer's need to tell stories for his or her own sense of identity comes the writer's tidal need to read the works of others, hopeful of clues leading to discoveries of identity, technique, information.

As a teacher I can't help noticing the comparison between the well-read student and the well-read student's probing, original output on the positive side, the comparison between the poorly read student and the derivative, approval-seeking output on the negative side.

It is a personal help to have had since 2005 a weekly commitment to deliver a book review once a week. This has added a cyclic pattern to my reading of alternating newly published works with golden oldies, things I discover new from the new releases listed in Publishers' Weekly, and things I wish I'd had the opportunity to review when they were new (and possibly had). 

 This pattern does not by the way ratify any sense I have of being well read, it merely provides an obligation to read, think, react, and write. Reading in general, reviewing at the pleasure and whim of various book review editors, and being paid to write about things I would ordinarily have purchased remains one of the most satisfying of pursuits. The process also reminds me of how idiosyncratic I am, authors are in general, and readers in great specificity are. Coming into the classroom filled with wannabe writers, bursting at the seams with this attitude about reading and reviewing, is only one of my agendas or, if you will, subtexts. Another is attempting to lure the student away from the desire to seek approval, leading them instead toward the temptation of becoming idiosyncratic--at least as idiosyncratic as I am, possibly even more so.

Two characters I so enjoy talking about (in my idiosyncrasy) are individuals that cause eyebrows to raise, sighs of impatience to emerge, warning flares to arc across the sky that I should give serious thought to moving over to the English Department or consider taking early retirement, those among the more charitable responses. What possible connection could connect present day narrative with two such ancient and outmoded sorts as The Pardoner and The Wife of Bath?

For one thing, each is a splendid example of an unreliable narrator, but their value does not stop with their unreliability or ambiguity. Indeed their value as what I will call vital enigmas is enhanced by the fact that each tells a large measure of what may be seen six hundred years later as no less truthful observations about human nature, each is lured into story telling by the host of a saloon, a man who is, early on in his narrative and of all the pilgrims in the journey to Canterbury, stopped from finishing his tale because "[t]hy draste rhyming is not worth a toord/" and the author himself probably had an agenda relative to a mid-fourteenth century group known as The Lollards, a reformative group reminiscent of some of our contemporary evangelicals. Thus did Chaucer bring forth an agenda against a group whose name was thought, among other things, to mean Mumblers. The Wife of Bath was--my take--a swipe at the old boys in the locker room, a woman of stature who has held up pretty well, thank you.

To move forth with a mountain goat leap, What are we to make of text we read, admire, and absorb as resonating within us? What are we to make of statements coming forth from characters who seem disorganized, corrupt, caught up in agenda, and yet redolent of the Truth as we see it? Further, what are we to make of our own narratives?

Ah, you've noticed: it is a tricky, duplicitous world out there. Individuals from half way around the world are busy trying to give us millions of dollars from the estate of wealthy Nigerians, all of whom perished in some airline disaster. Individuals closer to us are trying to convince us that John McCain has our better interests at heart, and Joe Lieberman is trying to convince us it is all Kosher, all of it.

Mountain goat alighting. None of it is Kosher nor reliable, or more than relatively truthful. We have some measure of science which has undergone peer review and vetting and is as reliable as far as we have progressed in our--dare I say it--evolution, but it is just as possible to regress, to stall, to reject inquiry and questing and questioning.

So why did BO roll on FISA? Why did the Dems roll on the Fourth Amendment? Who will come knocking on our in boxes, asking for donations tomorrow, after selling out the Glorious Fourth? And who among us will be so unreliable as to forget once again what they've done to us and how we let them?

Unreliable narrators.
Unreliable readers.

Quo vadimus?


Anonymous said...

A book that comes to mind re: reading and writing is,
Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose and another book which could be called Observing Like a Writer, is in fact called Writing in an Age of Silence by Sara Paretsky. Both books reminding us to raise an inner eyebrow (or outer depending on how dramatic one's eyebrows are) at shortcuts in thinking we may take as writers.Lazy thinking leading to derivative writing.

Anonymous said...

You have lofty expectations for your students, expeccting them to become as idiosyncratic as yourself. However it is a goal well worth acheiving for them as writers. I hope that they are up to the challenge.