The Unreliable Narrator’s Stuff
Objects in First-Person Fiction, or The Unreliable Narrator’s Stuff
Pablo Neruda’s poem “Ode to My Socks” demonstrates not only that specific objects carry emotional weight in the physical world, but that their significance translates onto the page. When in I Remember, Joe Brainard writes, I remember a shoe store with a big brown x-ray machine that showed up the bones in your feet bright green, we know this thing, this moment in time. Even if the memory isn’t held by the reader, they can at least picture the object and, if the rendering is precise, know its size, its texture, its smell.
The placement of things is no less powerful when the world being written about is fictive. That character has an agenda: to tell their version of the story and to get you, the reader, on their side. They want to show you what they know about the world and that their story is like none other. I would argue that the reader (and therefore the writer) should consider every item mentioned as an active choice by that narrator, backed by either their subconscious or willful intent.
In first person, with a narrator whose credibility or lucidity is under question, the writer’s careful selection of objects can serve a number of purposes. Consider the fact that this narrator has not only chosen or noticed the objects, but probably shows them to the reader to elicit some specific response. They are part of that character’s testimony about himself.
In A.M. Homes’ The End of Alice, repetitive object placement offers instances of the concrete among the not-particularly-lucid memories of the adult criminal. The yellow truck, for which the narrator gives but the barest of visual cues, is a physical object that seems to be part of reality (in terms of this novel). It acts as a sort of paperweight against all of the flutter of the rest of the story. The fact of the recollection and reporting shapes our idea of the speaker: that he was once a child, an innocent. As were you.
Real-world objects, familiar and easy to picture, tamp down a piece that is based on fragmented recollection, lore or conjecture, as well as bolster the case made by a narrator in whom we are not inclined to place our trust. Here are my facts—but I am a liar! But here is this thing that you can imagine, you can know its heft or place it in your own pocket. What better an offer of proof than some piece of evidence that the reader can visualize, has seen in the physical world, may even own.
The items that those narrators notice are important, as is the reason that the character chose to show them to us. In George Saunders’ “Pastoralia,” the narrator’s day turns one way or another based on the appearance of a dead goat. Whether or not the goat is left in the narrator’s drop slot—the umbilicus between the theme park cave where he lives and the rest of the world—is the barometer for the his success at his job. While most, or hopefully all, readers have not had this experience, we have suffered dreaded supervisor reviews or emails from that crazy witch in H.R. We are able to put aside the fantasy of the cave situation and sympathize with the narrator on a psychological level. The goat is important to us because it is important to the narrator; on the third no-goat day we know that things can only go downhill and we are worried.
While Madame Bovary is told in third, the noticing, selecting, and reporting is close and specific enough that it warrants a look. Emma first tastes the life of the upper classes at the home of the Marquis d’Andervilliers. We don’t see what the other guests actually look like, but rather the things with which they have decorated themselves: …little gold-stoppered bottles twirled in half-opened hands whose white gloves showed the outlines of their nails and hugged their flesh at the wrist. These items inform what we know about both the party guests and Emma; their mention gives the writer much more mileage than would a description of the partygoers’ hair color or height and it tells us that Emma cares about and is in awe of this luxury.
The narrator in “Feathers” by Raymond Carver, while not necessarily unreliable, does give a rather fragmented representation of the critical evening, a dinner at a coworker’s home. The title urges the reader to pay attention to the peacock, which eventually is let into the house to peck at the couple’s unattractive baby, yet right there on the mantle rests a plaster cast of the host’s wife’s “before” teeth. The fact that the model is even in plain view, let alone displayed like a trophy or heirloom, is much weirder than having the a peacock visit the dinner table, and its presence opens the door for a glimpse of the wife’s backstory as well as implications of socio-economic status. Here again, a psychologically weighty object shows us more than an overblown scenic description.
In crafting a story, all objects should be thoughtfully chosen, curated even, and considered in light of their context. If the object is unsurprising—a jock having a letterman’s sweater or a nurse having white squishy uniform shoes—then its inclusion adds nothing. By pointing out the gold-stoppered bottles and the absent goat, the authors ask the reader to make a visual image, the payoff coming in terms of singularity. I would argue that the object would need at least one quality to set it apart, either an extremely precise description (the gloves so fine that the wearers’ nailbeds can be detected through the leather), a memory trigger (almost anything in I Remember) or being so out of place that its image is forever burned into the reader’s brain (crazy dental model).
In the first-person narration scenario, the writer must take into account that the character has singled the object out. If that narrator is unreliable, and here I include juveniles as well as the uninformed or outsiders, another layer of intrigue is added: how do we ‘take’ their assessment—Grain of salt? Gospel? A child stating that there was a solid gold goblet on the dining room table tells us no more than that they interpreted the scene as sumptuous. An appraiser reporting that the vessel is made of solid gold means a different thing all together.
If the item is the narrator’s own, then one must also consider whether that ownership is calculated. In Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You, (Basic Books, 2009), Sam Gosling analyzes personal environments that are intentional and compares them to those that arise more organically. A writer can use similar strategies to think about how to present the duality of the unreliable first person narrator. Consider this bifurcated character in terms of how they want the recipient of the story to see them versus how they actually are. Even as “unreliable,” can be too strong a term, it is hard to imagine a first person narrator without a stance, since the telling itself is in effect the taking of a position. The fiction writer should not only form the lens the narrator/character uses to view the world and thus the way they tell the story, but also set up some facades that such a narrator would use. Where Gosling seeks to break through people’s presentations of themselves in order to find out who the subject really is, a writer uses this information to actually build up the layers of the character. To simplify: there is the character and there is the face that first person character shows to the world via selective narration.
In “Impression Management,” according to Gosling, a person actively highlights their positive attributes or hides their negative ones. This is an intentional manipulation where they are actively shaping the story, which is a hallmark of an unreliable narrator. This would be useful to consider when a narrator’s stance is damage control or they are in a defensive mode.
“Self-Deceptive Enhancement” describes a more benign form of character presentation: the characters/subjects portray themselves favorably as before, but here they actually believe in their own purity of purpose. One could think in these terms with a narcissistic, delusional, or juvenile narrator. While this narrator’s version cannot be assumed to be true, the reader will not automatically assign blame, thus creating a more sympathetic character than that described in the preceding paragraph.
Gosling examines how identities are created not only by how people present themselves, but by their physical world (their stuff)—and again, consider intent. Items that make a statement or show an allegiance could show a character’s true position or they could be an attempt to create an image. Once revealed by the character/narrator in dialog or by some instance in the character’s past, we can see the effort to create a gloss. This narrator becomes like funhouse paired mirrors: reflecting back and forth until everything about them is in question.
Gosling also posited the idea of “Behavioral Residue,” which refers to material conditions that show how people conduct themselves. An example he gives is the dinged-up bumper implying recklessness (or poor depth perception?) as more telling than a bumper sticker. The first instance shows evidence, whereas the second is wholly created, and is not at all proof that the car “will stop for yard sales” or that the driver has been to the Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz.
Gosling (quoting McAdams) says that identity is the story we tell ourselves in an effort to make sense of our past and who we are now. There is a huge difference between who the narrator thinks they are and who they actually are. Navigating the distance between the two has everything to do with the narrator’s purpose, what they chose to show and how they want their audience to think about them.
Against my will, my thoughts go towards Heidegger. In his essay “The Origin of the Work of Art,” he addresses what he calls the “thingness” of things, a concept so jello-like that it required a new word. While not a terribly accessible essay, I can glean at least this: There is a sense we get, even from the mention of objects, causing connections between people and events and all manner of cultural clues. “The temple, in its standing there, first gives to things their look and to men their outlook on themselves,” he says. I would argue, that while Heidegger talks about actual items (art objects, in particular) this notion extends to things positioned within stories. He writes about a quality that cannot be defined, but like the goat in the slot, the yellow truck held by the future pedophile, or those crazy teeth, we know the well-placed resonant object when we see it.
Linda Michel-Cassidy is a writer, visual artist and sometimes-teacher living in Arroyo Seco, New Mexico. Her fiction has been, or will be, published by: Prick of the Spindle, Jabberwock, Blackheart’s ten-year anthology, Jet Fuel and others. Her nonfiction has appeared in: Eleven Eleven, The Provo Canyon Review, Heavyfeathers, the Tahoma Review, as well as the anthologies New Mexico Voices and Seeking Its Own Level.
She is a regular contributor for The Review Review and her book reviews and author interviews are scattered about the interwebs. She performs with the comedic spoken-word group, Lit-up Writers, in Taos, NM.
Linda was a New York State Summer Writer’s Institute Scholar in 2014 and in 2011 was the Resident Writer for the Taos Summer Writer’s Conference. She has received an honorable mention from Glimmer Train, was a Rose Metal Press chapbook contest finalist, received second place prizes in the Southwest Writers contest and the James Still Prize for Short Fiction, and a number of other close calls.
She holds a dual MFA from Bennington in Fiction and Nonfiction, and another, in Visual Arts from the California College of the Arts.