Saturday, August 12, 2006

Old Unreliable

The Quiet American by Graham Greene (United Kingdom 1955).

(Spoiler: This post discusses the conclusion of the novel.)

Is an infant unreliable? How about a tattered old man working in a junk shop who brags about his great wealth? Is a Socialist parliamentarian an unreliable vote for the oil and gas industry?

No. You don't expect much from these people. The baby will mew when it will, the old man is a fantasist, and the petroleum lobby long ago wrote off the radical's vote. None is unreliable, because none was reliable.

Yet literary critics insist that obviously flawed and unbelievable story tellers are "unreliable narrators." The phrase, coined in 1961 by University of Chicago professor Wayne Booth, is so elastic as to potentially encompass any narrator who is not an omniscient god telling a wholly linear story in a deadpan style.

Each of the following have, by one critic or another, been classified as "unreliable narrators": Scout from To Kill A Mockingbird, because she was a child. Huckleberry Finn, for the same reason. Bob Arctor from A Scanner Darkly, because he was high on drugs. The murderer from The Tell-Tale Heart, because his guilt induced madness. Patrick Bateman, because he may or may not have been an American Psycho.

In many of these novels, the imperfect perspective of the narrator is part of the point. Huck Finn is a product of one place and one time, and it's inconceivable for the story to have been told by a distant third person. What some literary theorists label unreliable narration, I call voice and character and point of view.

In other examples of allegedly unreliable narrators, you are informed early on of the narrator's limitations or biases, and you may proceed with all due caution. Of course the Benjy section of The Sound and the Fury is less than dependable; it's the fractured, stream-of-consciousness memories of a retarded man. You take it for what it is worth (which, in Benjy's case, is quite a lot).

None of these characters is a truly unreliable narrator. Each tells the story, the best he or she can, given the attitudes and experience at each's disposal. None is anywhere near as unreliable as the first-person narrator of Graham Green's The Quiet American.

Thomas Fowler is a lazy, middle-aged English newspaperman posted to Saigon in the 1950s to cover the Vietminh rebellion against the French. He befriends a young, idealistic American official "on special duties," and a love triangle emerges among Fowler, the American and Fowler's Vietnamese girlfriend Phuong. Fowler is witty, observant and, you discover too late, has lead you down a garden path.

Fowler is unreliable for the simple reason that he lies to you. The first sentence of the book is a lie. The first chapter of the book is a series of lies told to the reader and to some of the other characters.

But Fowler is, by all evidence initially presented, trustworthy. The reader has no reason to suspect Fowler's storytelling until Fowler reveals the truth near the end of the book (and, even then, he never admits that the first chapter was an exercise in mis-direction).

Fowler is not presenting events as he perceived them but discolored by age or background or mental impairment. He is knowingly telling falsehoods to the reader, calculated to be credible and lulling. He is, truth be told, an unreliable narrator.

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Anonymous Edward Lansdale said...

Peter: This is an accomplished piece of criticism; I wish you had continued with it. Also, if you have time, refresh my memory: what is the specific unreliability you are referring to?

Any consideration of unreliable narration should start and end with "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," by the way. This is where the utility of a term other than "voice" is clarified. Also the French have a word for unadorned text presented as parody...

OT on the LOTF post, it's helpful if you include a link down to the original when you reference a post that occurred a while back.

This is quite a worthwhile blog.

8:46 AM  
Blogger Paul Karl Lukacs said...

Fair enough, Major General. (The real Edward Lansdale was a U.S. military advisor in the 1950s to the French and, after their retreat, to South Vietnam.)

The first sentence of The Quiet American reads: "After dinner I sat and waited for Pyle in my room over the rue Catinat; he had said, 'I'll be with you at latest by ten,' and when midnight struck I couldn't stay quiet any longer and went down into the street."

Pyle said no such thing. In Part 4, Chapter 2, Section 2 (pages 180 to 181 of my orange-spined Penguin paperback), Fowler begged off Pyle's request to "make a long evening of it."

"Well, I guess I'll have to go back to the office. Only I'm always afraid of getting caught," Pyle said, referring to some workplace emergency that might suck him in.

"Don't mind being late," Fowler said. "If you do get caught, look in here later. I'll come back at ten, if you can't make dinner, and wait for you."

"I'll let you know . . . ." Pyle said in response, his last words in the book.

Pyle didn't promise to be at Fowler's apartment by ten. That's just an alibi created by Fowler to distract Inspector Vigot (and the reader) from the fact that Communist agents, instigated by Fowler, murdered Pyle that night.

1:17 AM  

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