One commentator to my earlier post on unreliable narrators is also bothered by the concept, because it “implies that there’s an objective, True story to be told outside of the character’s subjective experience.” But this grievance introduces an epistemology that cannot be universally assumed in fiction. In some fiction, the chic (and progressive [—update]) negation of objective reality may be the law, but many novelists—perhaps most novelists—are guided by the principle of an “objective, True story” outside any one character’s perception.
Earlier today, for example, I came across the following passage in Don DeLillo’s new novel Point Omega. The narrator, a filmmaker named Jim Finley, is visiting defense intellectual Richard Elster at his home in the Anza-Borrego Desert. Elster was among those who plotted strategy in the Iraq War:
The conclusion, I am beginning to think—although I am only thinking out loud, you understand—is exactly the opposite of what Wayne Booth taught us to think. The truth is that nearly all first-person narrators are reliable, because it is nearly impossible to provide access to a contrary point of view, which might call his into question. Consider what Roth must resort to in the last pages of The Dying Animal, introducing another voice to interrupt the monologue at long last.
Film provides the means that literary fiction lacks. Mike Hodges’s 1972 detective spoof Pulp opens with Michael Caine, speaking in a tough-guy voiceover, saying, “I walked outside and hailed a cab.” While the credits roll, cabs whiz past Caine, establishing from the opening shot that he is an unreliable narrator. Novelists have no such means at their disposal.