Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Unreliable and Unpredictable Narrator

One of literature's best-known and most-used devices is the unreliable narrator. The term seems to have been coined in 1961 by critic Wayne C. Booth, if we're to believe Wikipedia (that ultimate midwife of unreliable narrations), but the technique itself is as old as literature.

Think how dreadfully flat and meaningless Fight Club would be were Jack to prove a clearheaded, trustworthy stenographer of personal history. Ditto for Patrick Bateman of American Psycho. Humbert Humbert in Lolita. Nothing complexifies a story like having your reader realize, partway through the story, that objects in the rearview mirror may be less real than they appear.


The narrator doesn't have to be certifiably insane for the technique to work, of course, because selective modification of the truth (let's be honest for a moment) is endemic among the sanest of the sane. Lying is so common, it's hard to get an experimental handle on it. And who lies more than anyone? A storyteller! For a storyteller to embellish a story is not only not unusual, it's expected.

Mark Twain exploits this fact at the beginning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, when he talks (via the Huck character) about the earlier Adventures of Tom Sawyer: "That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth." This statement, made in the guise of full disclosure (honesty), frames the entire Huck narrative as unreliable
a brilliant device.
Was Patrick Bateman insane? Or just
crazy enough to believe he killed people?

The takeaway for fiction authors is obvious: If your narrator is unflaggingly honest, you've created a rather unrealistic super-mortal (and more than likely, a dull story).

But there's another kind of narrator unreliability that can be incredibly useful and entertaining, and that's the unpredictable  narrator—a narrator who's apt to go in unusual directions without warning. One of the things that made Psycho  so jarring for so many viewers, when in came out in 1960, was Hitchcock's decision to kill the film's main character a third of the way into the story, disrupting the unspoken contract between director and movie-watcher (a contract that says the main character normally lives through most or all of a film). Suddenly the viewer was aware that the director could not be counted on to tether the story to this or that familiar handrail; all bets were off.

"All bets are off" is a rather extreme place to leave the viewer or reader, unless you're writing horror or psychological drama. Unpredictability can and often should come in smaller doses. The protagonist might be prone to sudden daredevil acts; or maybe just daydreams. (Lapsing into a dream sequence is a familiar—and some would say, overworked—"unpredictable narrator" ploy.)

Here's an unpredictability writing prompt for you: Have a character begin a turn of dialog by saying to his/her partner "Did you ever [do/think/see/say/wonder][something really odd]?" For example, two friends are driving somewhere. There's a lull in the conversation. Suddenly the driver says to his buddy/sister/GF/BF: "Did you ever want to do something totally random?" The other persons says: "Like what?" "Oh, I don't know, like, paint a watermelon blue and leave it on someone's front porch."

Maybe that's a lame example. The best example of randomness I ever heard (the person who told me this swore it was true) involved some college students in the Sixties—fraternity pledges, allegedly—who got a jackhammer from somewhere, donned construction-worker clothes, set up traffic cones at a random street corner, torn up a section of asphalt, and left.

The point is, whatever random idea your character comes up with, even if he/she doesn't act on it, reveals something about the character. If you want, it can provide a metaphor that characters can return to again and again throughout the story.

Unpredictability opens the door to humor as well. In Joseph Heller's Catch-22, Yossarian tells of the hospital patient in full body cast with tubes going in and tubes going out. The tubes going in start from a jar of yellow fluid and the tubes going out lead to another jar, also of yellow fluid. When the top jar runs low and the bottom jar is full, a nurse exchanges the top and bottom jars. This is not only an unpredictable and unexpected occurrence but marks Yossarian as an unreliable narrator, because anybody knows urine would never be administered intravenously to a patient in a hospital. On the other hand, Yossarian has been trying to suggest that everyone around him is insane, and maybe they are. Such an anecdote makes you wonder.

Unpredictability is not only a gateway to humor, it's a good way to get unblocked (if you're writing fiction) when you reach a scene or section of dialog where you're not sure how to begin.

In the comic romance I'm writing, the two lead characters, Tyler Schremp and his new girlfriend Molly Ledbetter, accompanied by their puppets, mini-Schremp and mini-Molly, are out on a date (their first "real" date since their puppets met a week earlier). They've decided to meet at a Chinese restaurant in Santa Clara, CA called Wu Wu. The two stare at each other googly-eyed, holding hands across the table, while the waitress reels off her Spiel. When the waitress leaves, mini-Schremp asks mini-Molly "Did you get all that?" "All what?" "What the waitress just said?" "Um, no, actually. What did she say?"

At this point, Schremp (speaking through his puppet) explains that the waitress said she just finished sacrificing a duck in their honor, in order to make the "duck sauce" sitting in front of them. Molly dips a fried noodle in the sauce, tastes it, whispers something in her puppet's ear. Then her puppet says: "She said it tastes a lot like apricot jam with water."

Mini-Schremp: "Exactly! See, that's the miraculous thing. When prepared properly, according to the five-hundred-year old recipe, the pineal gland of the mallard tastes sweet and fruity, like apricot, with hints of ginger and vinegar..."

Mini-Schremp then goes on to tell how the waitress's name badge says "Aimee" but in fact she's known in Beijing as Dong Sue. She was brought to the U.S. two years ago, after being sold into sexual slavery in Redwood City. But she managed to kill her captors, and now she works for "that big huge guy in the kitchen, right there—the guy with the missing fingertip, see him? His name is Saki Tumi, a.k.a. Wei Wei Fat; he's actually Japanese, a former Yakuza hit man. This is his territory, we're safe here. He opened this restaurant ten years ago, after making a fortune filming snuff movies in Fukushima. Born-again Christian. Nicest guy you'll ever want to meet."

Absurdity, in this case, proves to be a great ice-breaker. The characters go on to have a great time, the reader (I hope) has a great time, the puppets get naughty, a big secret gets revealed, the main character has a realization, and the relationship goes to the next level.

The novel, by the way, is called B.A.T.T.Y., and I hope you'll buy it when it comes out. (I've got to finish writing it first.)

Unpredictable/unreliable narrators are, let's face it, a lot more entertaining than guileless, truth-obsessed court reporters. Have fun with your narrator. Let him or her go a little crazy. It's what the reader wants.

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