Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Used Care Salesman qua Narrator

unreliable narrator--a dramatic witness who relates his/her version of a story with bias and details which ultimately cause the reader to experience doubt and loss of willing suspension of disbelief; a character, however likable, whose vision of the story is less than trustworthy.

The cynical trial lawyer views every witness as unreliable, attempts on behalf of his own client to impeach the witness' version of a condition, situation, or story at issue. The reader approaches a novel or story with the same cynical attitude, looking for large or small facts with which to disagree until, at some point, immersed in the story, most if not all disbelief suspended, convinced the characters in the story are real individuals, the events plausible enough to radiate the aura of empathy.

Some characters, such as Richard Brinsley Sheridan's Mrs. Malaprop, (The Rivals, 1775)deliberately overreached the limits of her understanding, providing a great comic relief. Sir John Falstaff (Henry IV, part 1; Henry IV part 2, The Merry Wives of Windsor) was notable for his self-serving embellishments, many of which were in open conflict with information known to the audience. Moving from stage to page, where characters are able to become more complete narrators of story, they may overreach for the sake of personal gain, social or professional status, or some moral highground to which they aspire or already feel entitled. The eponymous protagonist of Herman Melville's Billy Budd, Foretopman, pushes the boundaries of unreliability into naivete. So too is Mr. Stevens, of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, a treader on the cusp between unreliable and naive for at least two major breeches of awareness for a man of his stature. (See naive narrator)

All these individuals are unreliable in relative degree to the extent that they are less reliable than other characters who share the stage or page with them; indeed they may command from the reader a greater admiration than their more literal and reliable compatriots. Consider Randle (sic) P. McMurphy, from Ken Kesey's novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, introduced to us as a convicted felon, faced with the option of hard labor under the boiling sun, opting instead for the comforts of a mental institution. If ever a major character's unreliability were called into question, McMurphy would be a strong candidate. And yet. As the story progressed, his agenda became focused, reliable, and quite admirable, provoking a cathartic payoff in the best tradition of Greek tragedy. As an added irony in Cuckoo's Nest, McMurphy's grim compatriot, Chief Bromley, is a certified psychotic, some of whose visions the reader is allowed to see at first hand.

Unreliability in narration has been with us even before Chaucer's The Merchant's Tale, wherein the teller, in the throes of an unhappy marriage, has little positive to say about his or any other wife. It reached an extreme with the noted mystery/suspense writer, Agatha Christie, whose reliability transgression in Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? featured a first person narrator who confessed at the very last line.

The entire concept of reliability in a narrator or plural narrators in cases where warranted rests with the writer's avoiding the temptation to overextend the unreliability, especially for the purpose of representing said narrator as evil incarnate. An important model of balance is seen in William Faulkner's portrayal of Benjy Compson in The Sound and the Fury. With its title drawn from Shakespeare's Macbeth, ("a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,") thirty-three-year-old mentally retarded man, Compson's narration actually seems to have more compassion and wisdom than the other narrators.

A proper degree of unreliability becomes the doorway through which the writer can move the furniture of ambiguity, irony, and satire; it is in all its permutations a powerful tool.

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