Friday, June 1, 2012

Of Narrators Unreliable

I find it oddly amusing that the last two fiction books I've read or are currently reading have unreliable narrators. So much so that I decided to take a moment and comment on the whole idea of unreliable narration and what it means for literature in general and genre fiction specifically.

The two books that prompted this are Above by Leah Bobet, which I reviewed previously, and Ninjas Vs Pirates Featuring Zombies by James Marshall. So, if both books have unreliable narrators, does this mean they're essentially the same?

Hell, no!

The best way to describe Above would be lyrical and magical, like a hipster indie-band with a sarong wearing lead female singer who has this crunchy granola-girl attractiveness going for her. NVPFZ is more like a coke-snorting stripper who just dropped some acid. The only thing in common between the books is the unreliable narrator, but in both this is an essential element, and what pulls them out of what could have been cliche, almost pedantic, territory.

Okay, I should probably define what an unreliable narrator is for those who don't know or are curious to know what I think it is. An unreliable narrator is one tell the story from a certain viewpoint but with a bias that may lead them to, unknowingly or knowingly, distort facts to fit their view of the world, therefore anything they tell you about what happened in the book cannot be taken at face value. Seems simple enough, right?

It's actually not simple at all.

The first question that needs to be asked is, when do we know not to trust the narrator? This can be a hard thing to determine. While reading Above, it took me quite a few pages before I decided the narrator was unreliable. There were hints of it early on, but I was pretty deep into it before I was sure he couldn't be trusted and that everything related could just be the imaginings of a chemically imbalanced mind. It didn't detract or distract from my reading, and in fact I'm actually rather impressed that Scholastic published such a book targeted for the YA audience. Now, as for NVPFZ, right from the beginning it's obvious that the narrator is unreliable as the entire prologue is one giant run on sentence, and it's not that short of a prologue. So, in answer to this question, it varies from work to work and from reader to reader. Keep in mind though, always be a little bit suspicious of first-person narration.

The second question is, why? Why use an unreliable narrator at all? Shouldn't all stories be told as straightforward and simply as possible, and shouldn't genre fiction strive to be clear and fast-paced and so on?

No actually.

Genre fiction is as much literature as literary fiction. To say that it needs to be restrained to one set of tools is ludicrous. Don't get me wrong. I love clean and simple prose, such as what Asimov, Heinlein, and Scalzi have produced (yes, I put John Scalzi in the same grouping as the other two - say what you want about his writing but I enjoy it and find that his books have nice, clean prose that is easily read), but that doesn't mean genre fiction can't be complex, dense, intricate, and arcane. I mean, just look at Filaria. It's easily a university level read and qualifies as genre fiction in my books (and I don't think it's coincidental that both it and NVPFZ are published by Chizine - if ever there was a literary genre fiction house, it's them).

More importantly though, and as I've alluded to above, both NVPFZ and Above benefit from the use of unreliable narration. Above could easily have become a garden variety tale about freakish outsiders and how they need to be pitied and so on, a topic that's been covered in movies and books before (heck, the author even admits that the old TV show Beauty and the Beast was an inspiration, or at least her anger at the show was one). As for NVPFZ, let's be honest, the subject matter is so ludicrous the only way it could be anything other than a fanboy wank was to hide something deeper inside it and make the narrator unreliable enough that the reader goes hunting for that deeper meaning, and Marshall (from what I've read so for, as I haven't finished it) pulls it off.

The third and final question, at least for me, is it only "literary" genre fiction that uses unreliable narrators, and/or is it only first person narration readers should be cautious with. The answer to both is, of course, no. (I'm beginning to wonder if I'm a rather negative person - I keep saying no)

Truth is, all narrators could be considered unreliable because every narrator exists to tell a story from the point of view the author. Now, there will be varying degrees to this, and in a lot of cases it will be hard to pick up on, but go read, as an example, A Song Of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin and tell me which characters are villains and which aren't. It gets harder the farther into the series you get, doesn't it? That's because even though the story is told in third person, it's third-person limited meaning the reader is as close to being inside the head of each character as they can be without the narration switching to first person. It's subtle, and probably most people won't pick up in it, but it proves to me that genre fiction, and genre fiction writers, can be both literary and tell a good story without one sacrificing the other.

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