Unreliable narration – an author’s use of a storyteller we can’t fully trust – helps to explain the appeal of books as different as Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. But why do fiction writers use the device when most of us can more easily relative to relate to narrators we can trust? Is it just for the shock value that unreliable narration can create when we finish a story and realize that the teller has given us a skewed version of events (an effect that caused outrage when Agatha Christie used it in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd)?
David Lodge offers one explanation in The Art of Fiction: Illustrated From Classic and Modern Texts (Viking, 1993), an excellent collection of 50 short essays on as many aspects of how fiction works. Lodge notes that the story in The Remains of the Day is told by the aging butler of an English stately home who “repeatedly gives a favorable account of himself which turns out to be flawed or deceptive.” He adds that no storyteller can be one-hundred percent unreliable:
“If everything he or she says is palpably false, that only tells us what we already know, namely that a novel is a work of fiction. There must be some possibility of discriminating between truth and falsehood within the imagined world of the novel, as there is in the real world, for the story to engage our interest.
“The point of using an unreliable narrator is indeed to reveal an interesting gap between appearance and reality, and to show how human beings distort or conceal the latter. This need not be a conscious, or mischievous, intention on their part. The narrator of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel is not an evil man, but his life has been based on the suppression and evasion of truth, about himself and about others. His narrative is a kind of confession, but it is riddled with devious self-justification and special pleading, and only at the very end does he arrive at an understanding of himself – too late to profit by it.”
For more on unreliable narration, see “The Turn of the Twin Towers – Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Unreliable Narration” and the reading group guide to Netherland, which appeared in separate posts on June 24 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/06/24/.
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.