Under a beautiful night sky in the Shakespeare Glen in Forest Park, Margi and I enjoyed one of those perfect St. Louis evenings: a full moon overhead, warm breezes, chilled wine, delicious picnic dinner, and a brilliant and hilarious production of Twelfth Night by the Shakespeare Festival St. Louis. Everything about the production—the cast, the set design, the lighting, the music—was wonderful. The Bard would have been pleased.
The performance delivered what every Shakespeare play (tragedy, comedy, or history) delivers to me: jolts of awe. The first type is when a character utters a phrase that has found its way into our language without my ever realizing that Shakespeare was its creator. Indeed, his plays contain scores of original expressions that have now become commonplace, including: “I’ll not budge an inch,” “We have seen better days,” “A dish fit for the gods,” “[It’s] all Greek to me,” “One Fell Swoop,” and “Into Thin Air.”
The second jolt of awe comes when a character makes an observation so profound that I want to hit some cosmic Pause button to let it sink in. One such example is Macbeth’s haunting soliloquy upon learning of his wife’s death (and which gave William Faulkner the title to one of his greatest novels):
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
The Twelfth Night delivered several jolts of awe for me. Of the first type, one example is “out of the jaws of death” in Act 3, Scene 4.
“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.” (Act 2, Scene 5)
“Love sought is good, but given unsought is better.” (Act 3, Scene 1)
“Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.” (Act 1, Scene 5.)
“Thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.” (Act 5, Scene 1)
And for fans of meta-fiction, there was an added treat: that moment in Act 3, Scene 4, when Shakespeare playfully peers around the so-called fourth wall. He does it through Sir Toby Belch’s servant Fabian, who has helped put together the zany scheme to make a fool out of the sanctimonious Malvolio. When their improbable plan succeeds, Fabian observes: “If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.”
As a trial lawyer by day and an author by night, I don’t find the “unreliable narrator” an abstract concept. Indeed, I have been mulling over the subject for awhile. I have already posted some musings on this website, but I realized that the topic is particularly relevant to those of us who write or read mystery novels.
First, some background:
The “unreliable narrator” is a storyteller that, for one reason or another, we decide is not, well, reliable. In the courtroom, the jury’s challenge is to determine whether the “eyewitness” on the stand is reliable, and the opposing counsel’s challenge is to reveal on cross-examination that the witness is unreliable. Sadly, as The Innocence Project and research in neuroscience have demonstrated, the memory of most eyewitnesses is inherently unreliable.
These findings are old news in the world of literature. Though the term was apparently coined in 1961, the unreliable narrator has been a literary staple since at least the Wife of Bath, the hilariously unreliable narrator of her tale in Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th century Canterbury Tales. A narrator can be unreliable for one of several reasons: age (Huck Finn), mental impairment (Benjy in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury), naiveté (John Dowell in Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier), or deceitfulness (Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita). Here’s one blog’s list of examples.
But for a mystery novel–especially one narrated in the first person–the concept is convoluted enough to make your head spin. First, of course, is the fact that our narrator necessarily knows less than the author, who obviously needs to know the murderer’s identity before our narrator does. Indeed, for most authors, we know that identity before we write Chapter One.
For mystery writers, however, a bigger challenge is to avoid cheating, which I would define as artificially maintaining suspense by failing to disclose to your reader one or two crucial clues that your narrator has discovered along the way. To commit that sin is to render your narrator unreliable by cheating–and the reader is the one who feels cheated.
But for authors who play fair with their readers, the unreliable narrator is a fascinating and fun challenge that adds a new layer of suspense and another dimension to the reading experience.
A good recent example is Gillian Flynn’s blockbuster novel Gone Girl, which features alternating husband and wife narrators–Nick and Amy Dunne–both of whom prove unreliable. Early on in the novel, Amy disappears. Her husband Nick quickly becomes the prime suspect and soon reveals himself to us as unreliable. Much later in the novel–spoiler alert!–we learn that Nick’s deceitfulness pales in comparison to Amy’s.
My hands-down favorite in this field is Scott Turow’s brilliant and captivating first novel, Presumed Innocent. As in Gone Girl, the husband narrator, Rusty Sabich, quickly becomes the primary suspect in a grisly crime. He’s a prosecuting attorney who finds himself indicted for the murder of a beautiful female co-worker with whom he was having a kinky affair. As we follow him through the pretrial preparations and the trial, which ends in a dismissal on other grounds, he never reveals to us whether he is innocent. Indeed, only near the end of the novel–long after the trial–do we find out the truth about the crime. If you haven’t read this greatest of all modern legal thrillers, you are in for a treat.
I confess that I have not yet taken on the challenge of writing an unreliable narrator. But for all of the readers out there, what are your thoughts about unreliable narrators? Any favorites?
In my recent musings on unreliable narrators in literature and the law, I kept coming across the term “the Rashomon Effect.” Indeed, Google that term and you will get links to fascinating essays in a variety of fields ranging from psychology to anthropology to sociology to historical interpretations to the law.
Stated simply, the “Rashomon effect” is the effect that our subjective perceptions have on our memories of events. The result is that two or more observers of the same event will describe substantially different but equally plausible accounts of the event. As neurological science has demonstrated, we are all subject to the Rashomon effect. We are all unreliable narrators.
“Rashomon (1950) struck the world of film like a thunderbolt. Directed by Kurosawa in the early years of his career, before he was hailed as a grandmaster, it was made reluctantly by a minor Japanese studio, and the studio head so disliked it that he removed his name from the credits. Then it won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, effectively opening the world of Japanese cinema to the West. It won the Academy Award as best foreign film. It set box office records for a subtitled film. Its very title has entered the English language, because, like Catch-22, it expresses something for which there is no better substitute.”
Realizing that I was in danger of becoming an unreliable narrator on the very subject of unreliable narrators, I went to the library, checked out the DVD, and watched it last night. If you haven’t seen it, you definitely should. It’s not only a beautiful motion picture but a powerful example of the paradox of the unreliable narrator
While unreliable narrators have served as a key plot device in some recent movies–including Momento (2002) and The Usual Suspects (1995)–Rashomon is a virtual tour de force on the subject. Set in 12th century Japan, the central event is the murder of a samurai. That murder occurs before the movie opens. Three of the witnesses at the trial are supposedly the only eyewitnesses. They are: a notorious bandit, who confesses to murdering the samurai and raping his wife; the wife of the samurai; and the dead samurai himself, who testifies through a medium. Their stories all have the same basic structure: the bandit kidnapped the samurai, tied him to a tree in the woods, and raped the wife. But each story contradicts the others as to the actual murder and the motivation. And then a fourth witness–the woodcutter who had discovered the dead man in the woods–reveals that he knew more than he testified to at trial.
In short, the film gives us four equally plausible versions of the same grisly murder. Which version, if any, is the real one?
Watch the movie. See if you can figure out the answer.
Within the field of literature, the “unreliable narrator” is a storyteller who violates our trust. Most readers start a book quite literally taking the narrator at his word. The unreliable narrator, however, is a storyteller who provides us with inaccurate or incomplete information. The cause could be the narrator’s age, personal involvement in the story, mental disability, or deceitfulness. Whatever the cause, the reader starts to notice things that suggest that the narrator is either lying or doesn’t understand what is really going on . (Let’s leave for another day consideration of what “real” means in a work of fiction.)
Although the concept sounds post-modern, the unreliable narrator dates back thousands of years. For example, the ancient Roman comedy Miles Gloriosus, based on an even earlier Greek play, opens with our narrator, a pompous soldier named Pyrgopolynices, taking the stage. Though he brags about his heroic deeds, he is eventually exposed as a fraud. Other examples are found in Geoffrey Chaucer 14th century masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales, where the unreliable storytellers include the bitter Merchant, whose cynical view of marriage distorts his tale, and the outrageous Wife of Bath, whose hilarious R-rated tale is filled with misquotes and inaccuracies. And certainly Don Quixote (1605), which I discussed in a prior blog, provides a tour de force on the topic: an unreliable Spanish narrator purports to have reproduced an unnamed Moor’s translation of an unreliable Arab narrator’s tale about the adventures of an elderly gentlemen driven mad by his belief in the reliability of the narrators of heroic fairy tales of knights of yore.
Literature teems with unreliable narrators. All three contenders for the title of Great American Novel have their own versions. The narrator of Moby Dick famously opens: “Call me Ishmael.” Hmm . . . so that isn’t your real name?
Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby opens with advice his father gave him in his “younger and more vulnerable years”: “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” his father told him, “‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” Although Nick assures the reader that “I’m inclined to reserve all judgments,” he proceeds to judge–and occasionally misjudge–every character we meet along the way.
“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt Polly — Tom’s Aunt Polly, she is — and Mary, and the Widow Douglas is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before.”
Perhaps the saddest unreliable narrator I’ve encountered is John Dowell of Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier. The gullible Dowell is the only person in the novel who doesn’t grasp what is going on, which gives his famous opening line–“This is the saddest story I have ever heard”–an added level of poignancy.
For an impressive set of examples drawn from the worlds of literature, motion pictures, comic books, video games and elsewhere, check out this post on the TV Tropes site
So what does all have to do with lawyers and the law? Unfortunately, everything.
The outcome of most lawsuits hinges upon a jury’s determination of which witnesses are reliable narrators and which are not. Sadly, the history of the criminal justice system is the history of unreliable narrators. According to one report, “more than 75,000 eyewitnesses identify criminal suspects in the U.S. each year, and studies suggest that as many as a third of them are wrong. The Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted persons, points out that mistaken eyewitnesses helped convict three quarters of the people who have been freed from U.S. prisons on DNA evidence. As the organization explains:
“While eyewitness testimony can be persuasive evidence before a judge or jury, 30 years of strong social science research has proven that eyewitness identification is often unreliable. Research shows that the human mind is not like a tape recorder; we neither record events exactly as we see them, nor recall them like a tape that has been rewound. Instead, witness memory is like any other evidence at a crime scene; it must be preserved carefully and retrieved methodically, or it can be contaminated.”
Indeed, as explained in this science blog post, neuroscience has shown that the very act of remembering changes the memory. In short, we humans are inherently unreliable narrators–a fact already known to the raucous audiences in the 2nd century B.C. who roared in appreciation at the exposure of the braggart soldier/narrator in the final act of Miles Gloriousus.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently published a piece on Fred Firestone, a friend and St. Louis businessman who travels to New York City once a month to co-host with his daughter Jo an event that the newspaper states “is drawing critical acclaim from the New York media and attracting sellout crowds to a club in Brooklyn for their wild and crazy pun show called the Punderdome — New York’s Most Puntastic Competition.”
Ah, yes. The pun, which the dictionary defines as “a joke exploiting the different possible meanings of a word or the fact that there are words that sound alike but have different meanings.” Or as William Safire once wrote in his New York Times column on language, “A pun is to wordplay what dominatrix sex is to foreplay–a stinging whip that elicits groans of guilty pleasure.”
As near as I can tell, most folks either love ’em or hate ’em. Alfred Hitchcock was among the former, stating that “Puns are the highest form of literature.” Another defender, Edgar Allen Poe, claimed that “those who most dislike them are those who are least able to utter them.”
I suppose I’m an agnostic. I admit that even the groaners make me smile, such as the one on Halloween a few years back, when the young trick-or-treater asked me what Mr. Spock found in the toilet on the Starship Enterprise. The answer: the Captain’s log. And I suppose we can concede our amusement at learning that the butcher who backed into the meat grinder got a little behind in his work. Or that the soldier who survived mustard gas and pepper spray is now a seasoned veteran. But many puns make me wince, such as “zucchini” as the name for a two-piece swimsuit for animals.
Nevertheless, some of our legendary figures of art and literature have done impressive work in this realm. For example, Dorothy Parker, famous for her punning skills, was once challenged to make a pun out of “horticulture.” Her response: “You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think.”
And then there’s Groucho Marx, whose movies are brimming with wordplay. One example: “Last night I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I’ll never know.”
And finally, of course, we have the Bard himself, whose love of puns apparently exasperated Samuel Johnson. Some of his puns were light-hearted, some more profound. For an example of the latter, “Richard III” with the title character lamenting his brother’s ascension to the throne: “Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this sun of York.” Richard’s brother is Edward IV, and their late father was the Duke of York. “Son” and “sun” are homophones (words that sound the same). Edward is thus the “son” of the Duke of York but also the “sun” whose rise on the horizon is troubling Richard.
But most of Shakespeare’s puns are just fun, and many are R-rated. One good example occurs in Scene 2 of Act III of Hamlet. As the royal audience gathers for the staging of the Mousetrap, the famous play within the play, Hamlet spots Ophelia in the crowd. The following dialogue ensues, with a play on a slang term for vagina (and sex in general) that likely would have slipped right past the Elizabethan version of the FCC:
Hamlet: Lady, shall I lie in your lap?
Ophelia: No, my lord.
Hamlet: I mean, my head in your lap.
Ophelia: Ay, my lord.
Hamlet: Do you think I meant country matters.
Ophelia: I think nothing, my lord.
Hamlet: That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs.
Unfortunately, my punning ability falls far short of the masters. I’ve even considered dropping by the fabric store to pick up some new material.
What about you? What are your favorites? Be creative. Be crazy. But remember: no matter how much you push the envelope, it’s still stationary.
A while back, I did a post on the Poisoned Pen Press blog about the challenge of convincing literary snobs that there are indeed great works of literature that meet all criteria of that lowly genre known as Mystery. As I explained, there are 3 basic requirements of the genre:
- (a) A mysterious murder or missing person or thing of value (such as a Maltese Falcon);
(b) A lone protagonist; and
(c) A single point of view (either that of our protagonist or of a sidekick, such as Dr. Watson).
Satisfy those three criteria and–voila!–you have a mystery. I then set out, in a series of subsequent posts, to identify 9 mystery novels that our literary snob can locate in the Literature section of the bookstore.
At the suggestion of friend and blogger extraordinaire Alanna Kellog, I am gathering links here to my separate posts on each of those 9 novels:
- Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
- The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
- Labrynths by Jorge Luis Borges
- Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner
- A Murder of Quality by John leCarre
- The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
- The Real Life of Sebastion Knight by Vladimir Nabokov
- The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon
- The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
First, the sex. Many years ago, I read a magazine piece by a literary figure who’d come of age in the Greenwich Village of the 1920s. Among her fond memories of that era, she wrote, was the pride that she and her friends took in their mastery of the art of fellatio. I sat there stunned, trying to grasp the fact that knowledge of oral sex had preceded the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s. And then I had one of those Homer Simpson “Doh!” moments as I realized that we humans have looked pretty much the same for nearly a million years, and thus at some moment eons before Woodstock some man and some woman checked one another out, grinned, and, well, you get the point.
Which brings me to metafiction, that self-conscious style of fiction that takes as its subject fictional writing and its conventions. Examples include a story about a writer creating a story, such as Paul Auster’s 2003 novel Oracle Night, and a story about a reader reading a story, such as Italo Calvino’s 1979 novel If on a winter’s night a traveler (which opens with those very words). As with oral sex, I had assumed that metafiction–so often coupled with the term “postmodernist”–was invented in the 1960s.
And then I read Don Quixote. Published more than four hundred years ago, this novel occupies the #1 slot in The Guardian’s rankings of the 100 Greatest Novels of All Time. The basic story line: Alonso Quijano, an aging landowner from La Mancha, has been driven insane by his obsessive reading of the tales of chivalry in his library. Resolving to restore dignity to the lost profession of knight-errantry, he dons a rusted suit of armor, renames himself “Don Quixote de la Mancha,” recruits a simple farmer named Sancho Panza as his squire, mounts his spavined horse Rocinante, and sets out in a quest for glory, which begins infamously with his attack on a windmill that he believes is an evil giant.
But what most surprised me about this remarkable novel is the way it makes postmodernist metafictions seem almost quaint, beginning with the Prologue. This is where Cervantes confesses he is not the father of story but just the stepfather. The “real” author of Don Quixote, he explains, is an Arab, Cide Hamid Benengeli, whose chronicle Cervantes has had translated into Spanish.
This “stepfather” role gets reinforced when an exciting battle scene in Chapter 8 ends abruptly with Cervantes explaining that Benengeli could find nothing further about the event and thus “left the battle suspended in midair.” Chapter 9 begins with Cervantes telling us that in a marketplace in Toledo he recently bought some old notebooks written in Arabic. He found a Moor to translate them and discovered to his joy that they included the rest of the battle scene from Chapter 8, which then becomes the rest of Chapter 9.
Cervantes himself makes a quirky “appearance” in another chapter, where the village priest and barber, convinced that the only way to restore Quixote’s sanity is to burn all of the tales of chivalry in his library, start reviewing his books to decide which ones to burn. In the process, they comes across a novel by Cervantes. The priest explains that Cervantes’ work has clever ideas but never fulfills its potential. He hangs onto the novel in the hope that the sequel Cervantes has promised will eventually be published.
These examples from Part 1 of the novel are nothing compared to what happens in Part 2, published 10 years later and shortly after publication of a fraudulent version. Every fictional character in Part 2 has already read Part 1. Thus the people we meet in Part 2 are not only familiar with the history of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza but have also read the pirated version. When strangers encounter Quixote and Panza, they already know all about them–and this knowledge triggers much craziness and practical jokes.
In short, the metafiction that is Don Quixote preceded the “invention” of postmodern metafiction by nearly four centuries. Which, at last, brings me to Ecclesiastes, who would have rolled his eyes at my surprise at learning the deep histories of what I believed were inventions of the 1960s. As he wrote more than 2,400 years ago: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
Or as a humbled Shakespeare wrote in his Sonnet 59:
If there be nothing new, but that which is
Hath been before, how are our brains beguiled,
Which, laboring for invention, bear amiss
The second burden of a former child.
We’ve buried this classic American detective story in our final slot, but don’t worry, dear snob. It’s been anointed with holy oil of The Library of America. You can now purchase Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep in the fancy schmancy Library of America edition , and place it on your bookshelf in the “C’s” between your Library of America editions of the works of Willa Cather and John Cheever.
As the Atlanta Constitution observed, “The most significant release of the season may well be The Library of America’s two-volume collection of Chandler’s work. In Chandler the pulp crime novel became literature. Chandler’s inclusion in The Library of America honors both the writer and the series.”
As with all great writers, the problem is to choose just one book. Mine is The Big Sleep because it’s even better than the wonderful Bogart/Bacall movie. The Kurtz of The Big Sleep is Rusty Regan, the former I.R.A. guerilla, bootlegger, and special friend of the wealthy General Sternwood. Rusty married Vivian Sternwood, the elder of the General’s two daughters, but has mysteriously disappeared. As in The Heart of Darkness, a man named Marlow–here, a private eye named Philip Marlowe–is hired to find the missing man.
Never mind that the plot itself has, to say the least, a few loose ends. Indeed, when William Faulkner was writing the screenplay for the movie version, he telegraphed Chandler in desperation to find out who actually committed one of the murders in the book, and Chandler telegraphed back that he had no idea.
Never mind. Read this novel for the mood, for the characters, and for the language. Chandler was master of the one-liner — “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window” — and the extended scene setter. Here’s his description of the greenhouse where Marlowe meets his new client, General Sternwood:
“The air was thick, wet, steamy and larded with the cloying smell of tropical orchids in bloom. The glass walls and roof were heavily misted and big drops of moisture splashed down on the plants. The light had an unreal greenish color, like light filtered through an aquarium tank. The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men.”
Ernest Hemingway once wrote that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” The Los Angeles Times adds the following post-Hemingway perspective:
Raymond Chandler’s prescience may be why, of all the detective novelists, he has exerted the most crossover effect on so-called serious authors. From Charles Bukowski, whose final novel Pulp was a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the hard-boiled genre, to Paul Auster, whose mid-1980s New York Trilogy recast the detective novel from a post-modern point of view, Chandler has cast a long shadow. Indeed, Chandler’s conjoining of the vernacular with literary textures suggests a direction for writers to pursue at a time when traditional methods of storytelling have begun to seem contrived, too fixed and non-fluid to encompass the jarring juxtapositions that make up real life.