Ofelia Hunt is the author of My Eventual Bloodless Coup (Bear Parade). She lives in Portland, Oregon. This is her first novel.
"This book would like to give you an ice cream, but you will have to get in the van."
"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."
"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."
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?