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The Reliable Narrator

March 30, 2009


I am reading a novel, a weird one. The story is staged in a facility for chronic liars. You must decide whether the action is occurring as laid out on the page, whether its characters are being honest, modestly obfuscating, outright fabricating. In literature, I love this sort of thing; in real life, I prefer it straight-up.

In university, I took a survey course in literary genres. The professor distributed the reading list and explained, “The best way to learn to critique a genre is by studying its failures.” He believed that an excellent romance novel, superb Shakespearean tragedy, or noir thriller would hook you, and, caught up in the piece you’d gloss over what makes a mystery a mystery; a bildungsroman more than a coming-of-age story; a sonnet not simply a poem. Instead, if you looked at a rather crappy book, you would take note of how it fell short, and appreciate why the greats are indeed great.

The course orbited the issue of narrative reliability–can you trust the voice that is telling the story? The Great Gatsby, for instance, is recounted by a narrator with vested interest in casting himself as someone swept along by others rather than a figure who directly moved the action toward disaster. Passive, not active; impelled, not compelled; admirably tragic rather than guiltily tarnished.

I loved this idea–that I was being fed a line by an author’s invention, dealt a fib by someone who doesn’t exist. That a book might be a liar.


I know I should carefully consider the source of gossip. Carefully consider its relevance, too. Does it matter, for instance, if I got fucked around three years ago? Does it matter, who’s telling me the story, does it matter, the timeline, the trade?

But gossip, when it’s about my own life, is tantalising. It hangs above my head like a bunch of grapes and when I reach up, hoping to draw it in for scrutiny, it recedes. The details lose definition, like shrinking print. I clutch, I grasp but never gain purchase. I could reach for something better, something that will not make my belly ache. Still, I swat at those sour grapes, hands tapered to a plucking shape. There the stories dangle. A sickening orchard of frustration.

Recently, I was lied to a little by someone who claimed they were telling me some things to clear up past lies. Then, someone else told me no, no, the first someone was lying even worse. How to decode all this? Do I even bother, or just dump it all and walk away?


My own stories, how reliable are they? I tell you this, and I tell you that. Do you believe they concern the same woman? That they profile the same man? That he was once good until exposed as bad? Or, that one story is inflated, the other mostly true? Which bits are made up? Which are true? All of it, none of it, some of it?

How about this one?

“Lily is over Skip, and realises she was like Alice, nibbling treats that made her shrink or grow, all out of proportion. Long neck, short arms, plump fingers, minute feet, tempted time and again to swallow anything adorned with a ribbon and a short note. Drink me. Eat me. Poison.”

The precept “write what you know” is slippery, allows you to roll facts between your palms like a Play-Doh snake. I can tell you my story, and then tell you it’s true. What you make of it up to you.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. looka permalink
    March 31, 2009 9:27 am

    A phrase can be an expression that some read like this, others like that – but you know what you mean and what gave out thru it.

    I like that in drawings too. Some people follow a line and know immediately what to make of what they see. And that’s enough in their image.

  2. Carrie permalink
    March 31, 2009 1:11 pm

    I think that I’ve become much more concrete in my desires recently. In fiction and in life. I want it straight or not at all, which certainly limits good reading. it just got tiresome to be directed to peel back another layer, to question another motive. Just tell a story and I’ll figure it out on my own.

    I think once I heal a bit more that I’ll be able to take on more complexity in both arenas (and be more fun).

    All that being said, if the book is excellent, none of this will bother me at all.

  3. Amanda permalink
    March 31, 2009 1:16 pm

    I can relate to that desire, in real life stuff, for sure. Straight up or not at all. I am tired of people seeming mysterious, complex, reticent to reveal their true selves. Gah. Do you like me? Are you nice? Am I nice? Do I like you? Ok, done and done. Let’s stop with the constructed personae.

    Fiction, however, I like to push me around a bit.

  4. looka permalink
    March 31, 2009 3:50 pm

    Does what I said make any sense…? Don’t know, I have such a head ache now. Blah.

    But what I know, is that this is a good read that makes me come back to reread it.

  5. Amanda permalink
    March 31, 2009 3:51 pm

    Simon, it definitely makes sense!

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