Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Is Any Narrator Truly Reliable?

You've been asking this question with some regularity in literature classes, have paid it a good deal more than lip service in writing workshops, but have only in recent times been thinking about it in terms of you and your own composition.  The question is two-pronged, having to do with reliability.  Are your narrators reliable?  Are you, as composer/orchestrator a reliable source?


Best to take some time and thought before answering because you not only find yourself being drawn to the unreliable or at least the ambiguous narrator and because the more you think about reliability, the less you trust it.  

Thanks to the accident of your birth time, you grew up with a raft of writers whose narrative voices resonated plausibility and a variety of ways of arriving at the inescapable conclusion that life was a pretty unreliable prospect.

With that in mind, the varsity team of your time and the generation before approached their stories with the notion of sustained happiness being boring, to be sure, but even more to the point, nearly impossible to sustain.  

For every Jay Gatz of South Dakota, looking to reconnect and rewrite past history with his own personal Daisy Buchanan, there were certain obstacles, the primary one being that Daisy, through no fault of her own, was raised to be high-maintenance.  Yet another obstacle is the fact that Buchanan is Daisy's married name.  If this sounds familiar, compare the Gatsby-Daisy connection with Prince Paris and Helen.

True, Paris and Helen were not lovers before the fact, but Paris had been promised the bribe of the most beautiful woman in the world by an immortal, a goddess.  Forget that Helen was already married.  Forget the relative inequality of the sexes back in those glorious days of The Iliad; you don't mess with the whims and promises of goddesses any more than you mess with the conventions of the upper classes in the days of Gatsby.

Although the specifics of behavior in The Iliad and The Great Gatsby differ, the mechanics of the story can be seen as an overlap.  A seven-year war waged to get Helen back to her rightful husband.  A different sort of war waged to transform Jay Gatz into Gatsby, but there they are one fateful afternoon, in Gatsby's room, with Gatsby throwing one custom-made Turnbull and Asser shirts into the air and Daisy, moved to tears by their beauty.

Gatsby had the resonance of plausibility because Fitzgerald did and because, in a last-minute genius discovery, he introduced Daisy's cousin, Nick Caraway, to narrate the story.  It Gatsby and Daisy were bigger than life and scarcely reliable, there was Nick to help give them some anchor.  

Fitzgerald was not the only reliable voice of his time, yet the pattern persists:  Reliable narrative voices, say Dos Pasos, Steinbeck, Lewis, and slightly before them, Woolf, Cather, Dreiser, Stephen Crane, all told stories of men and women who were beyond the pale of reliability, some by several degrees.

Since you have read all these authors, including the so-called Homer authors (because of the extreme possibility Homer was more than one person), you have had experience with reliability and with what Mark Twain refereed to as stretchers, writers who have stretched the truth.  

You would like then to think that if you were to be subjected to a polygraph test, hooked to all the sensors, then asked if you were reliable and if you told the truth, you would not set off a cascade of wiggling styluses, all indicative of your variation from that other legendary drinking vessel, the Grail of Truth.

Are you in fact a reliable source.  There is not a writer named in these paragraphs for whom you do not bear considerable regard, bordering on affection.  Twain, Crane, Fitzgerald, Cather.  Be still, your heart.  But have you in fact learned enough from them? 

You do not seek reliability for political or academic reasons, rather as a springboard from which to launch characters who are not in the slightest bit reliable, but who seem so caught in the laser beam of their own design that they cannot help themselves.

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