Monday, April 28, 2008

Thoughts on the Unreliable Narrator

Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading has a great post on first-person narration. Scott says:

“Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier seems to me to possess precisely those virtues to which the novel narrated in the first-person is best suited. Often in first-person novels, the narrator is magically able to relate her story with the polish and skill of a novelist, and no effort is ever made to address why an otherwise ordinary person possesses such sharp storytelling abilities. The Good Soldier strikes me as such an accomplishment because Ford does not only provide us with a narrator whose storytelling skills are realistically diminished; he also integrates the narrator's diminished capacity into a portrayal of his character and an investigation into how the memory works and how we draw out memories by stringing them into stories.

A useful comparison: The Good Soldier very much brings to mind the novels of Kazuo Ishiguro. As with Ishiguro's novels, Ford's proceeds along the winding, backtracking path of a mind mulling over a certain period of life. This kind of storytelling might be called disorganized organization; that is, in its purposeful aimlessness, it attempts to resemble the workings of a human mind as it gives shape to a mass of memories. As such, at many points in both authors' works the entire basis of the plot changes as the narrator recalls a previously forgotten fact. We jump back and forth in time according to the narrator's whim. Revelations that would generally sit at the apex of a climax are made here almost casually.”

You can read the rest here. Several months ago, I read The Good Soldier in an experimental fiction class I took with Nick Arvin, author of Articles of War. There was a great deal of discussion about this particular narrator’s flakiness. Some found it enhanced the story and some found it frustrating.

Craft books typically describe the first person point of view as useful when the narrator has a particularly unusual voice. What I’ve never read about until now is that the narrator’s unreliability may be and possibly should be integral to the structure of the narrative. Scott’s essay clearly illustrates this point.

I recently read The Raw Shark Texts, by Steven Hall and Time’s Arrow, by Martin Amis; two books with unreliable narrators. Both stories use plot devices that alter memory and the natural flow of time. Consequently, the structures of both novels are somewhat disorienting. I think it's a matter of reader taste as to whether one enjoys this type of book or not.

Some of the most well known fictional characters are unreliable narrators, including Holden Caulfield, Nick Carraway, Huck Finn and Humbert Humbert. Who are your favorite unreliable narrators? Have you ever noticed a narrator's diminished capacity to relate a story as an integral part of the novel's structure? Do you find it enhances or takes away from your enjoyment of the book? Other thoughts on the unreliable narrator?


Melissa Marsh said...

I must admit, I am not a fan of first person POV. When I started reading adult fiction (sometime in junior high, I think) I avoided first person books like the plague. While I've relaxed my stance somewhat, I still do not have a fondness for them mainly because I want to delve into other characters' thoughts and emotions from THEIR POV.

I know, I'm weird. ;-)

Sustenance Scout said...

Hmmm heavy duty stuff. My favorite is Scout in To Kill a Mockinbird but I'd have to go back to see if she's unreliable at all; I really don't think she was but she was completely believable not only because of her personality but due to her father's complete ability to stay calm and composed in any given situation. Hmmm This is especially intriguing because I started a story yesterday in first person and by last night had switched everything to third, which I think, in this particular story's case, works really well. Usually 3rd person forces me to slow down but I've had some recent luck with first. Hmmmmm!

Lisa said...

Melissa, I don't think you're weird at all. I've haven't wanted to write in 1st person -- yet, but I think I might want to try it eventually. It really depends on the story. I think in order for it to be effective, the author has to use it for good reason and really take advantage of the benefits, in order to make up for what we lose when we read a story in 1st.

Karen, This essay really is heavy duty and I don't think I've added to it, but it's a lot of food for thought. I've never really considered what Scott Esposito is pointing out, but I think it's very valid. Perhaps it just provides some more data points to consider when choosing the best POV for a particular story.

Josephine Damian said...

I've got POV on the brain since I'm in the middle of beta-ing (is that a word? it is now) someone's MS.

I think a lot of first person novels are much beloved because of this.. but you'd better have a strong character with a strong voice to pull it off - I still avoid it cause I like taking the reader to places the main character hasn't gone yet, showing them stuff the MC doesn't yet know - stuff that means trouble for the MC.

But yeah, GOOD SOLDIER is one of my faves.

Lisa said...

JD, I'm with you. I prefer to write in 3rd because I don't like the restrictions inherent in 1st, but I have to admit that when a writer does 1st person well, it blows me away.

Charles Gramlich said...

I don't often enjoy fiction that tries to mimic reality too closely. That's what reality is for. a case in point, Faulkner trying to write scenes from the viewpoint of a mentally challenged character. Didn't care for it.

Lisa said...

Charles, That's exactly why I think it comes down to a matter of taste. I have a very hard time with Faulkner too.

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It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

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