July 13, 2019

the unreliable narrator, or the reliable but blinkered narrator


I used to really like this gimmick, or maybe I should call it technique, of having a novel be told in the voice of an unreliable narrator, so unreliable that the actual story is found in the things the narrator is blind to, but that the reader can pick out easily. Maybe the most famous of these is Nabokov's Pale FirePale Fire, in which an academic named Charles Kinbote lays out an annotation of a poem by his colleague, fictional poet John Shade, in which Kinbote finds only references to his own life, though the poet has only a little clue who Kinbote is.

I remember liking The Remains Of The Day by Kazuo Ishiguro for this reason. (The narrator is the loyal butler to a wealthy and connected British Nazi sympathizer (really not just a sympathizer but a promulgator. He's based on a real-life person whose name escapes me; feel free to comment); whenever confronted by his conscience, or that of others, he retreats behind his well-explained concepts of butlerian duty.)  I remember loving the book twenty years ago, but I recently saw the movie with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson and I felt like they did o.k. with it but without the words on the page it didn't make a lot of sense. Unless you're in the head of the narrator, his actions don't make sense and he just seems dumb.

I also loved the movie Never Let Me Go, based on an Ishiguro novel of the same name. But I decided to read Never Let Me Go, and it looks so tedious. In that book/movie, the pathos is found in the fact that the characters aren't aware of the tragedy of their position, but you come to understand that in your own mental language, your own words in your head. In the book you have to read a lot of letters written by someone who is not fully aware of her position in the world, and it's not as touching, you just want to tell her to stop. I don't know if I can read a whole book narrated by a narrator who is (by agreement between writer and reader) mentally incomplete. It seems like I've read enough things like that. 

It's true I love Charles Portis' novels, most of which are narrated by people who are missing crucial pieces of information, usually about themselves. I love those. Maybe Portis is just better at it.

the unreliable narrator, or the reliable but blinkered narrator David…