Tuesday, February 26, 2013

unreliable narrator

"I remember her as a plain-looking girl, narrow as a stick, shy, prudish, wouldn't want to show an inch of skin from chin to ankles when about," said our unreliable narrator. 
The ensuing discussion on 'unreliable narrators' includes reflections on the writing strategy found in "Gone Girl," a recent NY Times best selling novel by Gillian Flynn.  The novel has been variously described by the critics as a literary mystery novel; a frightening portrait of psychopathy in a failing marriage; a love story wrapped in a mystery--suspenseful, funny, and chilling, sometimes all at once.   As each turn in the plot begins to dawn on a reader, sluicing through remaining chapters is like downing successive boilermakers lined up on the dark, mahogany bar steadying his elbows.

Reading up to the point of revelation, the chapters alternate between the husband, Nick, who narrates in first person and gives a chronological progression of the story line from the day his wife, Amy, has disappeared, and the diary entries of Amy during the earlier time period leading up to her disappearance.  It is essentially the story of a failing marriage.  Nick has lost his job as a writer for a magazine publisher in NY, is unable to get another job, and has burned through his savings.  He decides to return to his midwestern hometown to help his twin sister care for their cancer-stricken mother, and maybe get another career start.  He borrows money from Amy, drawing down her trust fund, and partners with his sister to open a bar in town.  To keep up his credentials as a writer, he also teaches a journalism class at the local community college.

From Amy's diary entries we notice she is unrelentingly optimistic and supportive of Nick, even as he seems to decline into a narcissistic, self-centered and immature man.  Why Amy, an attractive daughter of a wealthy family, well educated, and clever, should remain so supportive of Nick seems a mystery to us.

(spoiler alert: it's a good read, so if you enjoy a good mystery, get the book and read it before returning to the writing crafts discussion).

Suddenly, Nick's narrative startles the reader: during a police investigation of his wife's disappearance, he admits to having an affair with one of his young students.  At this point, if the reader has limited patience with mundane, modern romance plots, he's hoping Nick will quickly be convicted and hopefully executed for 'disappearing' his wife.  We suspect Nick has proven himself to be an unreliable narrator about what was going on.  However we notice we're only half-through the book, so we decide to continue a bit to see if the author has any other surprises (it should be said all the author's surprises are well earned and fit her plot).

Abruptly, Amy's diary entries end, and she begins narrating what has been occurring to her since the day of her disappearance.  The diary, discovered by police investigators as she had planned, was prevaricated by Amy to point suspicion toward Nick.  She is actually in hiding now while the police investigation into the disappearance draws tighter around Nick.  Amy is revealed to the reader as a psychotically unreliable narrator, and further story events are stunning.

Even more stunning is the story denouement, as Amy checkmates Nick into continuing their marriage, and on her terms.

Nick's example of an unreliable narrator lies in his omission of key information that would have led us to form a different view of his character, up until he makes the disclosure of infidelity.  This is one of the more common signs of unreliable narrators, where the narrator hides essential truths, mainly through evasion, omission, and obfuscation, without ever overtly lying.  Other common types include contradicting oneself, or explicitly lying to other characters.  Holden Caulfield, in Catcher in the Rye, signals his unreliable narrator's role with various instances of evasion, obfuscation, and lying.  In his case, it all seems to work agreeably well in the story as the bravado of a sensitive, confused youth, facing entry into an adult world.  Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, occasionally falls into a role of unreliable narrator as he reports events he couldn't have known about, and obfuscates with intentional fantasy.

Another memorable story of an unreliable narrator was in I am the Cheese, by Robert Cormier.  It is a very dark and discomforting novel in which we think we're accompanying a boy, Adam, riding his bicycle from Massachusetts to Vermont to visit his father there in a hospital.  The family had been in a witness protection program as a result of his father being a whistle-blower on some sort of government corruption scheme.  A subsequent auto accident involving the family killed the mother and injured Adam and his father.  During his bicycle trip Adam meets with various spooky events and people, and a sort of deja vue atmosphere prevails along the way; he oddly recalls seeing some of the places before.  When he gets to the hospital and is being interviewed there by a doctor, we realize Adam has some sort of psychiatric condition and is actually himself a patient there, as are some of the people he has reported meeting on his trip.  In fact, the entire bicycle trip has been occurring on the hospital grounds.

However, none of these unreliable narrators come even close to the psychopathic performance of Amy as an unreliable narrator in Gone Girl.

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