Thursday, July 24, 2008

I Am An Unreliable Narrator

No, no, not that kind of unreliable narrator. In fact, when it comes to objective truth, I'm in there with the rest of them.

No, I'm talking about being "unreliable" in a different way.

I wrote recently about how much I loved Rivka Galchen's novel Atmospheric Disturbances.

But not everyone, you know, loved the book. OK. Fine. I can deal with that.

Mostly some people seem to find it cold. The New Yorker review, by James Wood, describes the book as "original and sometimes affecting."

Since I found the book an emotional wind-tunnel, tornado, and roller-coaster, the fact that someone else found it "sometimes affecting" raises, well, let's just say it raises some questions.

Wood also says in his review that Galchen's novel is best understood as being in the "tradition of tragicomic first-person unreliability." An "unreliable narrator" tells a story that is ostensibly about his perceptions of what happened, but is really revealing to the reader the narrator's own perceptual and psychological oddities.

Wood puts another of my favorite books into this category: The Confessions of Zeno, by Italo Svevo. At first I kind of balked at this classification, because I'd been thinking of the unreliable narrator as somehow alienated from the author, and Svevo makes it clear that he loves his narrator Zeno, and identifies with him, no matter how crazy Zeno is.

When Zeno asks three different sisters to marry him in one evening (sequentially), and settles for his third choice, and then discovers that he is delightfully happy being married to her, I feel Svevo is saying not so much, "See how crazy Zeno is?" as "See how funny and unpredictable human life is?"

I love it when Zeno expresses his amazement to the third choice sister, and she says something like "But didn't you know it would be like this? How can you be surprised?"

Zeno's nuttiness seems in a different category from the alienated kind I associate with the novels of Robert Plunkett. Plunkett's My Search For Warren Harding, and Love Junky both present narrators who are really peculiar, not so much in the universal way of Zeno, but in their own individual craziness.

When the hero of My Search for Warren Harding tells us, with a straight face, that he is a fanatic for Morris dancing, this is not, it seems to me, a way of saying, Oh, we all have our goofy obsessions, but rather a way for the author to wink at us about the character without saying anything about him at all.

So I realized that an unreliable narrator can be alienated, but he doesn't have to be. And Galchen's and Svevo's novels are both unreliable but non-alienated narrators.

And then I had my answer about why I love Atmospheric Disturbances (and Confessions of Zeno) so much:

I am an unreliable narrator.

I am acutely aware of the ways in which my first-person experience of the world just fails to add up to the coherent story I use to get around in it.

I find that while I think I know the reason for some feeling, I then discover I don't. I have my "reasons" I tell myself for the things I do, but I know they're probably not the real reasons, which are just unknown to me.

Living life as an unreliable narrator is lonely. Pretty much everyone else -- including me -- knows only the constructed, presentable version.

It's hard to even explain, or describe, the sensation, never mind the underlying phenomena.

So in addition to whatever else, I read these books with a deep feeling of identification. And the suggestion that somehow the crazinesses are universal -- are a matter of degree, rather than of kind, in the unreliability -- I love it.

It's reassuring, not to be alone in the world. And glimpsing the inner self of the unreliable narrator, it's very moving.

The fact that other readers take these books with analytical distance -- "sometimes affecting! -- makes me wonder:

Are other people not unreliable narrators?
Are other people unreliable narrators but they don't know it?
Do other people know they are unreliable narrators but they just don't care?

I don't know. My best guess is that people would be happy to admit they're unreliable narrators of their inner lives, but that they just don't find this fact very interesting, except in a kind of silly, intellectual house-of-mirrors kind of way.

And I guess that's what leads people to feel that books like Galchen's are "sometimes affecting." Cute, intellectually vivid, but only mildly moving. Hmph.

But. Since this is the logic that ends in people writing letters to novelists and inviting them to lunch, I think I'll just stop these reflections here.


Captain Colossal said...

I like that so much. I do often feel that anxiety over one's own impulses is one of the things that leads to a sense of alienation and anxiety, because you can't properly explain your choices to other people.

Noko Marie said...

Uh-huh. The next logical step in that particular line of thought is something like, the better you are at fooling yourself that you know what you are doing, the happier you will be. Plausible, but possibly a little sad.