Random Musings – The Unreliable Narrator

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to just get away from it all and spend a long weekend on the Gulf Coast, relaxing in the sun. I’ve been letting my reading slip recently, so I made a vow that I’d try to get through a few books while away for the weekend, and I did just that. One book I was particularly keen to read is called Inexcusable, by Chris Lynch. Full disclosure, in case it’s important to you, Chris Lynch is a friend of mine, as he mentored me while I was working on my MFA a couple years ago, so if you feel like there is some bias here, you might very well be right. But it’s my post, and I can throw my bias around as I please.

So there.

Anyway, I have actually read Inexcusable before, so I suppose I was actually keen to re-read it. The reason I specifically wanted to re-read this book is because of Lynch’s use of the unreliable narrator in it, a construct that we discuss in Week 3 of our class while examining Ryunosuke Atukagawa’s “In a Grove.” Essentially, an unreliable narrator is a narrator whose judgment we readers cannot entirely trust. The full explanation is a lot deeper than that, but let’s leave it at that for our purposes here.

In Inexcusable, something has happened between Keir Sarafian and his wanna-be girlfriend, Gigi Boudakian. Gigi feels that Keir has done something inexcusable, while Keir is adamant that she is just mis-interpreting their situation and his intention. This story is told from Keir’s point-of-view, and he spends most of the 176 pages of the book giving us his “perfectly reasonable” account of recent events to show that he cannot be the person that she is accusing him of being.

At first, Keir is an easy person to like. As he says, he is a “good guy,” and he seems like it. Granted, I become immediately suspicious of somebody when they have to say that they are a good person—only jerks (at best) feel the need to point that out. Still, he does seem to lead a pretty decent life. But as the book progresses, we slowly pick up on the fact that Keir seems to be in denial about his darker side. The boy can only cry wolf so many times before we become skeptical as to his real personality and start to wonder if Keir really did do what Gigi is accusing him of. The climax where his self-deceptions come crumbling down around him is one of the most chilling things I’ve ever read.

Inexcusable is a book that truly centers its suspense on its climax—just like any mystery, once you know how it ends, there’s little need to go back and re-read it. The suspense isn’t there anymore. But the reason I wanted to re-read it was specifically because I knew how it ended up. I knew how the Lynch played with my expectations and reactions, and what I wanted to see was how exactly he did it.

What I didn’t really expect was just how uncomfortable that book is to read when you do know what’s going on. Without Keir’s delusions to color the stuff that he gets involved in, it’s no longer just his final realization that’s hard to read. It is every single thing he does leading up to that moment. There’s no longer that comfortable cushion of plausible deniability to soften the blow of the truly dark things he does. Frankly, it’s very artfully done.

Lynch pulls this off with a two-pronged attack. The first is in Keir’s tone of voice as he talks to us. Even when he is describing some of his most vile actions, he sounds as if he might as well be telling us about his most recent trip to the grocery store. It’s very matter-of-fact, as if there’s nothing that could possibly be wrong with it. The only thing out-of-place is just how often Keir feels the need to remind us of how good of a person he is. And if you don’t believe him, then you can just ask his family and friends. They’d tell you the same thing. That’s a little off-putting, but the rest of his tone is so reasonable, it’s easy to overlook.

The second prong is how each incident is a little worse than the one before, but never really so much more that we start to question things. It’s totally believable that Keir could accidentally injure an opposing football player accidentally, and that person would understand why it was an accident. It’s football; it happens. Next, it’s the “practical joke” that apparently went too far (what, that’s never happened to you before?) followed with the good-natured decorating of the town statue that somehow ended in its destruction. If it started with the vandalism, you might question him, but build slowly to it, and it can seem as if he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

With the two approaches together, it helps paint a picture of somebody who can be seen to be a perfectly fine human being, and it just reinforces how powerful an unreliable narrator can be. Lynch gives us a guy whose judgment cannot be trusted and slowly unfolds his untrustworthiness to us through nothing more than Keir’s own observations. In essence, the story here is that Keir isn’t the person he wants us to believe he is.

When done right, this is a powerful approach to telling a story. As a reader, we sort of automatically have to accept what a narrator is telling us as the truth, if only because there’s no other truth to be found. There isn’t another person around who can tell us things from his/her perspective the way there might be if you were interviewing witnesses to a car wreck.

But an unreliable narrator can give you more freedom than a straight narrator can. Sure, you don’t always want your narrator to be unreliable—chances are you rarely want him/her to be unreliable—but if you can pull off an unreliable narrator the way Lynch does in Inexcusable, you can tell one story while seemingly telling another. And when you can play with your audience’s expectations in a way they don’t immediately realize, you have the chance to pull off something very special.

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2 Responses to Random Musings – The Unreliable Narrator

  1. Pingback: Random Musings – Reading as a Writer | Full Sail University Creative Writing for Film and Digital Cinematography

  2. Angela Bailey says:

    Good to run into your writing online! Sounds like a lot has changed since McIntosh! Angie Bailey

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