Sunday, August 25, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Trust Me. No, Not Really.

WorldCon starts the 29th. I'm not ready, I'm not ready...

I'm never ready, so, suck it up. Next Idea Garage Sale, of course, will be focused on something to do with the Con, so let's cast about for something unrelated. Excuse me while I rummage through the garage...

Rummage, rummage - hey, here's - nope, I'm sure I used that one. Rummage, rummage - such an odd word, rummage. Don't get distracted. Rummage, rummage...ew, that's gross, don't want to talk about that...on the other hand, it ties in with - and then there's - and it's an interesting problem...oh, all right, then.

So, this week I became aware, through a really grossed-out English teacher, that at some point some reviewer for Vanity Fair (a zine culture way outside my comfort zone 'cause I'm all unsophisticated and stuff) called Lolita "the only convincing love story of the century," which I'm going to assume is way out of context because, seriously what the heck? But of course a lot of the problems Lolita has in the marketplace, and that Nabokov had with the response to the book, are down to people being so strongly influenced by identification with a character, particularly a POV-bearing protagonist, that they will either defend that character's position as if it were their own, or confuse the author's position with the character's and, when they reject the character's behavior, reject the author on the assumption that he is condoning the behavior.

If you want a less revolting example, and I think we all do, take Katherine Paterson's Jacob Have I Loved. This is a book about sibling rivalry, told entirely from the POV of a twin who feels, not without reason, that her sister Caroline has completely eclipsed her, that they are in an eternal competition which Caroline is predestined to win. She blames Caroline for stealing the limelight, their parents, The Boy; for her own sense of being unloved and marginalized; for being beautiful and talented when Wheeze (even her nickname is ugly!) isn't; for everything that makes Wheeze unhappy. And even though Wheeze, in the course of the book, manages to move past all this and mature into a more reasonable space, Paterson is often confronted with readers - particularly adult readers, interestingly - who take this attitude at face value and assume that either Caroline is as bad as Wheeze thinks, or that Paterson wants the reader to hate Caroline as much as Wheeze does. Which is to completely miss the point of the story.

This is a hazard of writing with an unreliable narrator, and the problem that arises from these two examples is, How to avoid it without abandoning the unreliable narrator? Because we can talk all we want about how people shouldn't read this way and should be able to recognize unreliable narrators when they see them, and separate the author from the character, and the reader's response from what the author says; it won't make it so.

So is there a way to shortcut this tendency?

The obvious one - to have a POV character who is so wrong that no one could possibly be confused - is clearly untenable in light of the Lolita evidence. You can't get much worse than a pedophile, after all!

One tactic of which mystery and thriller writers are fond is to alternate the unreliable narrator with a reliable one. This can be an excellent suspense device - whenever your detective or prospective victim protagonist hits a dull stretch, switch to the POV of the perpetrator and put his dangerous screwed-up-ness on display, without revealing his identity. Or (as Agatha Christie did in The ABC Murders) be revealing about screwed-up-ness, but misleading about role in the plot. Agatha Christie was in fact a master at using unreliable narrators, and caught a lot of flak about it early in her career. (About which no one said it better than fellow master of the puzzle mystery, Dorothy L. Sayers: "Fair, and fooled you. It's the reader's job to suspect everybody." Except that might be apocryphal because I can't lay hands on the exact citation right now.)

But that doesn't fulfill the literary motivation to use an unreliable narrator in the first place - the artistic desire to engage the reader with the text in a certain way. It is only the reader's job to suspect everybody in a mystery or thriller; in other genres, trust is the default mode, because who is there to trust in a book except the narrator? (I just realized, by the way, that Sylvia Engdahl used this effect in a delightfully meta way in This Star Shall Abide, of which I do not own a copy; but I vividly remember how the young rebel Noren, captured by Authority, is locked into a virtual learning environment in which he is the protagonist of a prominent historical figure's diary. The turning point of the book is the point at which, trying to work out for himself what's really going on, he realizes that he doesn't trust the people who put him in the environment, but he does trust the "First Scholar" whose viewpoint he's sharing. This also has to do with the importance of researching primary documents but let's get back on topic.) We subvert that trust at our peril; but how else, I ask you, can we ever deliver that potentially fruitful frisson of self-discovery we get when we realize we have been trusting someone evil, despicable, or psychotic?

Ah, now, psychotic - that's the ticket, surely? Nobody, after all, claims that Poe considered the murder at the center of "The Tell-Tale Heart" to be justified. After all, the narrator is batshit crazy! Well, yeah, but the question is - does he behave like a real madman and do we understand mental illness any better at the end of the story? The narrator of "The Cask of Amontillado" is also homicidally insane, and I've heard his position defended, in all seriousness! (By someone who rejected the much more sympathetic sufferer narrating Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper," yet.) Agatha Christie does a much better job of presenting an unreliable-due-to-mental-illness narrator in...I won't tell you which ones, just read all her novels and you'll find them!

The only work I can think of which is an unambiguous triumph in presenting an unreliable narrator is Justine Larbaliester's Liar, a compulsive, frustrating, dazzling read. This is the gold standard; but a gold standard is a challenge. You can see what she did. What can you do? Is announcing the unreliable narrator upfront the only way to disarm reader identification? Can you find a trick she missed? If you could go back in time and hand Nabokov a copy of Liar before he begins work on Lolita, or to Paterson before she wrote Jacob Have I Loved, could they have applied anything learned from it to their own protagonists and prompted a more nuanced reader response even from the least sophisticated reader?

Can you?

Starting a story with a technical challenge like this is far from easy, and much less free-flowing than starting with an incident or character. But for a certain kind of mind, it is a compelling challenge; and the results even of incomplete success (and is anything ever so incomplete as success?) would be rewarding.

And of course you do start with a character. It's just that you can't count on her.

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