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Ofelia Hunt

Ofelia Hunt is the author of My Eventual Bloodless Coup (Bear Parade). She lives in Portland, Oregon. This is her first novel.

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"This book would like to give you an ice cream, but you will have to get in the van."

– Amelia Gray, author of Museum of the Weird

"The ironic is a mere ancient whisper in this torqued narrative: its odd violence feels true. Today & Tomorrow crashes through the windows of strip malls and paints the hypertrophic aisles with bristly-creepy hilarity."

– Stacey Levine, author of The Girl With Brown Fur

"Ofelia Hunt is the balladeer of the doe-eyed detrivores of over-stimulation. Within Today & Tomorrow, readers find the fried and the frayed nerves in the youth of the Hyperworld. All will be well, America, as long as the rims keep spinning and Hunt keeps writing."

– Matthew Simmons, author of A Jello Horse

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Today & Tomorrow

A Sudden and Jerky Way: Unreliable Narration in T&T

06/28/11

I want to talk about the narration in Today & Tomorrow, and about unreliable narrators in general, but first we need to set some operational definitions. What’s currently understood to be an unreliable narrator (one whose credibility has been seriously compromised) is too broad, and could very well apply to every first-person novel ever written. I’ve always thought that an unreliable narrator is more than just a biased one, that he/she tries to deceive or misdirect the reader while telling the story.

The problem with this definition is that narrators who go out of their way to be unreliable are really annoying. They feel like a cheap trick most of the time, an unnecessary stylistic conceit that amuses the author more than it does anything for the work or the people reading it. I felt this way about the two Chuck Palahniuk books I read, and I almost threw Toni Morrison’s Jazz into my dad’s leaf mulcher out of frustration for similar reasons – not only did the narrator’s dishonesty make the book twice as long as it needed to be, but there was this winking arrogance on the narrator’s part, like he/she knew the whole story and just wasn’t going to tell us.

(Note: this is the first and last time I will ever compare Chuck Palahniuk to Toni Morrison.)

Which brings me, finally, to T&T, which I found charming rather than annoying. I couldn’t put my finger on it at first, and wondered if the numerous literary hatreds I’d sustained through high school and college were finally softening. But really, it’s two quotes from other sources that brought it into perspective for me.

The first was Hipster Book Club’s review of T&T; they suggested that “readers are treated not to stream-of-consciousness speech so much as a stream-of-consciousness imagination.” That made a lot of sense. The narrator isn’t dangling a Twinkie over our heads and pulling it away as we try to grab it. She’s not laughing at us. She’s as unsure of her own observations as we are, and often as bewildered by what she says to people.

Statements like “I talk how I want. That’s part of the arrangement” battle with frenzied changes of subject after she says something particularly crazy. “Let’s talk about something else,” she says, after Aaron disregards two of her violent family anecdotes. “Let’s talk about global terrorism, or fashion-design. Do you like fashion? Do you think I’m fashionable?” This is the voice of mental freefall. She may talk how she wants, but her own scattershot understanding of what that is sets its own limitations, one of which is that she says stuff that creeps her out just as much as anyone within earshot.

(Note: at the risk of derailing this post altogether, I submit that T&T is suspenseful in the purest sense of that term. It’s hard for a reader to predict what’s going to happen in a book when none of the characters really know.)

The second quote was something Kevin Smith (I know, I know) said in the director’s commentary for Clerks: The Animated Series. During the episode where Jay sues the Quik Stop after slipping on orange soda in the store, Kevin remarks that Jay’s character is lovable despite his constant obscenity because it’s clear that he isn’t trying to offend anyone; he just has no social barometer. Similarly, T&T‘s narrator isn’t trying to mislead or complicate things for the reader. If anything, she’s trying too hard to make herself understood, but her childish, chaotic responses to reality get the best of her.

Read the scenes with the injured dog again, and notice that the other characters are detached from it while she, who earlier in the book was kidding around about robbing AM/PMs and stabbing baristas, tries to find something else – anything else – to focus on. Moments like those reveal a lot about who she is and how her mind works, and justifies her unreliability as a genuine character trait instead of a self-serving vehicle for the author to jab at the reader.

I feel like there’s more that I could say about this topic, but I also feel like there’s an unspoken word limit for these things that I should be honoring, and which I may have already exceeded. I guess the point I want to make is that there’s a purposefulness to unreliable narration that T&T‘s narrator can imitate, but never truly inhabit. Her attempts to obfuscate only draw us further in.

So, yeah. What do you guys think about unreliable narrators? Am I talking out of my ass here?

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9 Comments

  1. Jordan Blum said on 06/29/11 at 9:30 am Reply

    I tend to like unreliable narrators. Hell, “The Great Gatsby” is one of the most famous and best examples. The irony is so potent in how Nick says he doesn’t judge people (meanwhile the entire book follows him doing it). And I love “America Psycho” because Bateman admits he’s lying (and he’s openly angry that no one calls him out on it). And of course the unreliable narration in “Fight Club” is crucial to its plot. In general, I don’t have a problem with it if it’s used for a purpose. If it’s just to seem clever and break the fourth wall, I agree that it’s quite annoying.

    This brings me to something I rarely see discussed. Everyone thinks “Moby Dick” is about Ahab and the whale and the insanity of the pursuit. Etc, Etc, Etc

    No! It’s about a narrator with several personality disorders who skews the story to fit his agenda. I wrote a paper on how “Moby Dick” is really about its unreliable narrator. Ishmael is the star of his own epic saga, and he wants us to know it. Hell, several chapters focus solely on him romanticized the dirty work of gutting sea animals. He realizes his job is disgusting and not respectable, so he provides plenty of his own background info to make it seem otherwise. He’s a classic unreliable narrator.

    And what’s wrong with Palahniuk and Smith?

    Reply

    DK said on 06/29/11 at 12:17 pm

    Good points about Moby Dick, Jordan! I admit, I’d never really looked at the book that way, but that’s a more appealing angle than what I’m used to. And it does add some context to the whaling chapters of that book (which are the most interesting to me, anyway).

    I like Kevin Smith, even if he is a bit thin-skinned, but bringing him up in conversation gets me a lot of eyerolls from literary folk. Same with Palahniuk, who admittedly is too gimmicky for me, although I did enjoy Fight Club.

  2. Ofelia said on 06/29/11 at 10:21 am Reply

    I tend to become infatuated with unreliable narrators/narration, narration where one ‘truth’ can’t ever be received. This all makes me think of Miranda Mellis’ The Revisionist and Stacey Levine’s Frances Johnson where the narration is so subjective that the reader (or at least me as a reader) can only be continually surprised.

    Thank you for this post Dave K.

    Reply

    DK said on 06/29/11 at 12:26 pm

    You’re quite welcome! Thank YOU for writing this book. It got me to thinking about whether or not a reliable narrator can really exist, since even the omniscient third-person POV carries the author’s bias.

    Johnathan Barnes’ The Somnambulist is the last book I read with a classically unreliable narrator, and once the big plot twist was out of the way, it became a pretty awesome book.

    ydde said on 06/29/11 at 12:28 pm

    There are, I think, two kinds of unreliable narrators. Ones who, like you say, are trying to mislead the reader, and those who, like the narrator for T&T, are unreliable because they’re, you know, unreliable. That’s a bad definition, but, for example, the narrator in Fight Club, he’s not trying to misdirect or mislead the reader, but is doing so unaware. I think the latter tend to be more successful and much more endearing, because we realise that they’re just like us, a person trying to sort out what’s True, but can only see through the single prism they hold up to their eye. Huck Finn’s like that as are a thousand other narrators. Their unreliability is what makes them so close to us. The former, though, the clever narrators winking at us like Ferris Bueller, they have their place too.

    I think my favorite unreliable narrators who’s trying to mislead the reader is Charles Kinbote from Pale Fire. He has this quality to him where you just get lost in all the details he’s giving you and you start to like him even as you begin to realise that he’s rewriting the text he’s commenting on. It’s like the more dishonest he becomes, the more dubious his narration, the more the reader can’t stop listening to him. I’ve not read Camus’ The Fall in a long time, but I felt the same way during that, wondering how much is true but not caring. Or The Confessions of Felix Krull by Thomas Mann.

  3. GBoyer said on 06/29/11 at 7:28 pm Reply

    I enjoyed the post, and especially the juxtaposition of Chuck Palahniuk and Toni Morrison. Especially the stuff about stream-of-conscious imagination v. stream-of-consciousness thought. Seems to me there are many third person narrative works that could be viewed as “unreliable-narrator-stream-of-consciousness-narration”. Infinite Jest comes to mind as a book of this type, as in very definitively an imagined work spewing out of the author’s mind, but maybe I can feel many tiny voices forming in the space around this comment, perhaps in offense at my off-handed comment? Just a thought. Based on another thought. That I liked. And the way you presented the narrator’s reaction to the dog really made your point. And please do continue to use unorthodox references like Kevin Smith’s commentary on *Clerks: The Animated Series*. All of this I loved.

    Reply

    DK said on 06/30/11 at 12:38 pm

    Agreed about Infinite Jest, and I think some of Michael Ondaatje’s work (Coming Through Slaughter and Billy the Kid, specifically) falls into that category as well, in that multiple narrators merge into one overarching, unreliable voice.

    And thanks for encouraging my shameful pop culture references! You haven’t seen the last of them, I assure you.

  4. Rosalie Morales Kearns said on 06/30/11 at 2:51 pm Reply

    The parrot-narrator in Robert Olen Butler’s story “Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot” is a good example of a non-annoying, non-gimmicky unreliable narrator. His jealousy has distorted his thinking about his wife, and we see him suffering for it as a consequence (reincarnated as a parrot, purchased by his wife, and witnessing her involvement with other men).

    Borges has some wonderfully unreliable omniscient narrators, but I can’t think of specific examples offhand.

    “The Poisoned Story” by Rosario Ferre has two first-person narrators, one of them unreliable, and she switches between them in, sometimes, the same sentence. It’s brilliant.

    Reply

    Molly Gaudry said on 06/30/11 at 2:54 pm

    Rosalie, I love that Butler story. Oh, wow, now I need to go re-read it. And now, I must go track down “The Poisoned Story,” too, which sound great! Thanks, Rosalie!

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