Thursday, June 30, 2011

unreliable narrators

(I'll add some artwork tomorrow; need to get this post in on last day of month.)

The writing strategy for a story told by an 'unreliable narrator' presents an interesting challenge to an author, and a recent short story in The New Yorker, "Gravel," by Alice Munro, set a few thoughts in motion.

The narrator in "Gravel" is never transparently unreliable, as is the narrator in "Catcher in the Rye," by J. D. Salinger, as that novel unfolds. However, a question of reliability in "Gravel" surfaces as we realize the events leading up to and surrounding a childhood tragedy are being told by a grown woman drawing on her earlier memories as a kindergartner. The story is constructed so well that it's worth exploring in this posting.

It takes just a column or two for Munro to develop her principal characters and a problem or complication that this story will deal with. The story seems to switch between the Point-of-View (POV) of a child, and the POV of her grownup self, recalling. The back-and-forth is relatively seamless as Monroe moves between the consciousness of each. There's never any question of who.

The younger sister, the kindergartner, is not named; her older sister, Caro, attends grade school. The father, a kind, educated, but gray sort of insurance agent, travels a lot.

The mother "had got busy with various fund-raising schemes for the theater and donated her services as an usher. She was good-looking and young enough to be mistaken for an actress. She'd begun to dress like an actress, too, in shawls and long skirts and dangling necklaces. She'd left her hair wild and stopped wearing makeup. Of course, I had not understood or particularly noticed these things at the time. My mother was my mother."

This passage kind of suggests the seamless way the mother and daughter each inhabit the consciousness of the narration. The kindergartner couldn't possibly have taken in all the earlier comprehensive detail, but her rudimentary observations are being fleshed out by an older self looking back.

A little later: "Well, then came a development that could have been foreseen, and probably was, but not by my father...She told him that the baby was Neal's."

"Was she sure?"

"Absolutely. She had been keeping track."

"What happened then?"

Neal is one of the amateur actors in the theater. This play-by-play commentary seems to be the sort of breathless commentary of the bewildered child, looking at astounding events unfolding. It works so well.

Neal is an idealistic liberal, a drop-out and turn-on sort of guy. The pregnant mother (she's never named), Neal, and the two girls, move into an old trailer beside a gravel pit outside of the town. One snowy morning the mother spies what she believes to be a wolf, and wants Neal to get a gun and shoot it. They argue.

"Easy. Easy. Let's just think a bit. Guns are a terrible thing. If I went and got a gun, then what would I be saying? That Vietnam was O.K.? That I might as well have gone to Vietnam?"

"You're not an American."

"You're not going to rile me."

It's the kind of laid-back guy he is. He usually smokes pot on weekends, and one time he lets Caro try one, but tells her not to tell her mother.

"I was there, though, and I told. There was alarm, but not quite a row."

"'You know he'd have those kids out of here like a shot,' our mother said."

The father begins to pick the girls up for visits with him on Saturdays, but becomes ill with recurring flu and stops coming for a while. It seems to have an effect on Caro, and she repeatedly sneaks their dog onto the school bus to leave it off at her father's house near her school. Meanwhile the mother begins acting more like a mother than a free spirit as the birth of her new child approaches, and warns the girls about playing at the rain-filled gravel pit near the trailer. Nevertheless the girls wander over to the pit with the dog one day. At one point the younger girl realizes her sister has given her some instructions:

"I was to go back to the trailer and tell Neal and our mother something.

That the dog had fallen into the water and Caro was afraid she'd be drowned.

Blitzee. Drownded.


But Blitzee wasn't in the water.

She could be. And Caro could jump in to save her."

She watches Caro leap into the water with the dog and runs to tell. But there's an odd interval of delay when she gets to the trailer.

The events at the trailer, and the recollections over the years haunt the woman. She's now a professor teaching at a college when Neal notices an article about her in an Alumni annual from his town, where she'd done her undergraduate work, and he writes her. She's reluctant, but agrees to meet him.

Neil tries to reassure her about the events of the past with his be-happy philosophy.

"I see what he meant. It really is the right thing to do. But, in my mind, Caro keeps running at the water and throwing herself, as if in triumph, and I'm still caught, waiting for her to explain to me, waiting for the splash."

Is it a case of the unreliable narrator? Did it really happen as the memories suggest? We can't really know. Great writing, though.

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