Monday, June 7, 2010

Unreliable Impressions

Brassai LeChatBlanc 1938 PompidouCenter-Paris It’s Sunday afternoon as I write this and I’m at the swimming pool with the children. It’s 90 degrees Fahrenheit and there are about 200 people crowding the pool.

I seem to be the only one with a notebook. :)

It’s so hot I can barely think so I’m making lazy observations about the other pool-goers as a writing exercise.

There’s a lady in the row of chaises in front of me. She’s reading Veterinary Times and occasionally taking a bite of a salad. From time to time she reaches over and sprays the elderly lady next to her with sunscreen.

There’s a very distinguished-looking man nearby who’s also observing everything around him as he sips a Lipton’s iced tea.. He’s got a pair of carefully folded plaid shorts on a designer bag next to him. His hair is “executive silver.” I’m surprised to see he has a large tattoo of a pair of lips on his arm.

The lady next to me frowns as I look her way, pencil poised over my notebook. I smile weakly at her. She looks at me with a measuring look…then focuses her attention on the bag next to me. I wince a little as I realize I brought my Malice Domestic bag to the pool—it has a large teacup with a skull and crossbones on it. She’d been speaking in English to someone on her cell phone…now she abruptly switches to Spanish.

If I take a picture of these people and we analyze the picture, we could come up with a bunch of conclusions.

And some of those conclusions would be wrong.

Maybe the lady I’m assuming is a vet is actually flipping through the magazine because it was left on the chaise by someone before her.

Maybe the man that I think looks distinguished, isn’t. Maybe he’d open his mouth and it would be total bike gang lingo coming out.

I’ve jumped to conclusions based on what I’m seeing. And so, probably does the woman sitting next to me. I’m sure she thinks I’m nosy. (Maybe I am nosy.) The bag with the skull and crossbones? Who knows what she thinks about that.

What if these impressions are coming (and they frequently are) from our protagonist? Many times the reader sees the world through the protagonist’s eyes.

Fiction does have many “unreliable narrators.” Nelly Dean, the narrator in Wuthering Heights definitely interprets the events of the book through her own lens. Agatha Christie used the device, I think very successfully, in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. In movies, Fight Club would be an example.

But sometimes it’s frustrating as a reader not to be able to trust the protagonist’s or narrator’s perceptions. We have to trust somebody in the book—we’re outsiders looking in. We can get to the point in a book where we don’t know who we should believe.

For me, as a reader, I do get frustrated if I’m aware—the entire book—that the narrator is unreliable.

If I find out at the end of a book or movie that the protagonist wasn’t reliable and it’s a twist ending…that might work. If it’s done well.

If the inaccurate perceptions of the narrator/protagonist are scattered through the book? I usually have less of a problem with that, too. Many murder mysteries work that way. My sleuth might draw the wrong conclusions about a suspect—maybe she saw the suspect out at a dinner and he was tipping the waitress with a $100 bill. The reader, of course, is in on this observation. But we find out later that the suspect wasn’t wealthy—he acquired this cash via blackmail and money is a motive in the murder.

Huckleberry Finn didn’t frustrate me. Yes the narrator’s interpretation of events was sometimes skewed or inaccurate—but he was a child. It’s understandable and wasn’t an obstacle for me to enjoy the book…I expected him not to be as mature in his observations or analysis of events.

How about you? Have you ever used an unreliable narrator? How about one who just occasionally has incorrect observations? As a reader, how do you feel about them?