Friday, March 5, 2010

Bending Narration

In a writers group I used to attend, there seemed always to be a great deal of discussion about the reliability of first-person narration. People always seemed poised to find self incrimination, some suggestion that the narrator is fooling or manipulating the reader, and therefore every word he or she writes becomes suspect. In contrast, I have long contended, first, that all modern narration has an element of so-called unreliability. And, second, that the relative lack of reliability need not be a signal that the narrator is engaged in some kind of manipulation of the reader, which is what these discussions always seem to want to suggest.

Thus I was gratified to read the following in the critic James Wood's How Fiction Works: "So-called omniscience is almost impossible. As soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character, wants to merge with that character, to take on his or her way of thinking and speaking."

If omniscience ("so-called") has a point of view -- and I agree that it does -- then why are reading writers so eager to find the point where first-person narration trips into so-called unreliability?

Woods again: "Thanks to free indirect style [that is, close third-person narration], we see things through the character's eyes and language but also through the author's eyes and language. We inhabit omniscience and partiality at once. A gap opens between author and character, and the bridge -- which is free indirect style itself -- between them simultaneously closes that gap and draws attention to its distance."

"This is merely another definition of dramatic irony: to see through a character's eyes while being encouraged to see more than the character can see (an unreliability identical to the unreliable first-person narrator's)."

Is Phu Goldberg, the narrator and central character of Cadaver Blues, an unreliable narrator? You betcha. But not, as the over-eager reading writer might posit, because he is intentionally misleading the reader. Rather, like all of us "real" people, who spend our lives convincing ourselves of the truths we wish to be, Phu may be kidding himself. The honesty -- the reliability, if you will -- comes from his willingness to share a story in which this hitch might reveal itself. Thus, one might say, he is reliably unreliable.

"Never owe. Never sweat. Never apologize."? "Well," the reader might reasonably tell herself, "we'll see about that!"