Wednesday, February 24, 2010

An objective, True story

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:

He told me that he had all-source clearance, or access to every sensitive sliver of military intelligence. I knew this wasn’t true. It was in his voice and face, a bitter wishfulness, and I understood of course that he was telling me things, true or not, only because I was here, we were both here, in isolation, drinking. I was his confidant by default, the young man entrusted with the details of his makeshift reality.It is precisely because Finley can test the details against an objective reality that he can describe Elster’s as “makeshift.” He even supplies the basis of his test: Elster’s “voice and face,” which betray a “bitter wishfulness.” If there is no objective, True story outside his telling, there is no way for Finley to conclude that what Elster says is not true.

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.

2 comments:

R. T. said...

Perhaps, as you imply, "reliable" as a label is the problem. If we substitute naive, duplicitous, or other qualifiers, rather than settle for the umbrella-word (reliable), then we may have a better way of zeroing in on and qualifying first person narrators, especially when other aspects of the narrative under consideration (other characterizations, for example) serve as circumstantial evidence against the narrator's "reliability."

James Marcus said...

I would agree that the default position is Reliable until we are told otherwise by the novelist. Of course, in the DeLillo bit you just quoted, the guy could have been wrong--maybe Elster did have all the intelligence at his fingertips, and his "bitter wishfulness" was pure projection on the narrator's part. This is easy to convey if you introduce another narrative voice, stickier if a single narrator is forced to pull the rug out from under himself. One of my favorite examples of the latter is Jane Smiley's novella "Good Will," by the way.

I've been enjoying the blog!