What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Fabulous Adventures On Which An Unreliable Narrator Can Take You...

I happen to believe that unreliable narrators -- yes, including ones who aren't all that appealing -- are among the biggest gifts that an author can present to his or her readers. It's easy -- relatively speaking -- to come up with a likeable character: all you need to do is imagine someone you'd love to spend time with or fall in love with, endow them with all kinds of characteristics, from beauty and wisdom to wit and charm, and send them marching through a plot that is calculated to show all those qualities to best advantage. Wrangling an unreliable or dislikeable narrator, on the other hand, is far trickier. Somehow, you need to delicately, over time, make it clear to the reader that this is a flawed person, someone who perhaps can't be trusted, but still the only person able to tell this particular tale the way it should be told. Someone you can't rely on, but whose narrative and character quirks you can resist, even as you sometimes end up squirming in discomfort.

I've run across a few novels of this kind in recent months that I found extraordinarily good -- all have ended up on my "best books of the year" longlist -- and although none of them need all that much more publicity, I can't prevent myself from giving them another round of applause on this blog.

First of all, there's the tour de force that is Gillespie and I by Jane Harris, published last year in London, and which appeared on the Orange Prize shortlist early this year. It's a tribute to an author's skill in bringing to life an unreliable narrator, this time in the form of one Miss Harriet Baxter, spinster, who recounts her experiences in Victorian London from the "safety" of London in 1933, many decades distant. It's hard to go into details without delivering spoilers, so let's just say that Harriet is telling us the story of her relationship with the painter Ned Gillespie -- unjustly overlooked, in her eyes -- and his family. Throughout, we get a lot of reasons to second, third and even fourth-guess ourselves and the narrator -- which could have been bad news had it not been that Harris's hands are very trustworthy ones for any reader to find him/herself in. Great Literature? Nope. But it's creative and imaginative in a very different and yet familiar way -- combining what feels like a Victorian gothic with a classic suspense novel. I was surprised to see that Politics & Prose (my fave bookstore in Washington, DC) had classified it as a mystery -- at that point, I had read the first 60 pages or so -- but after finishing it, I understand why. But in contrast to a conventional mystery, this story is full of mysteries, layers upon layers of them, and the author can never be entirely sure if the narrator is misleading herself as well as us. If all this sounds oblique, it's because to say too much about it gives away some of the joys of discovery. What I most delighted in is the extent to which, even at the end, Harris still leaves a lot to our imaginations. Could it be that...??? This was a 4.8 star book for me -- and a "thumping good read".

My second candidate, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, is still up there on the bestseller lists -- and rightfully so. (I liked it so much that I raced out to get one of Flynn's earlier novels, Dark Places, which also promises to be excellent but perhaps even darker....)  By the time Nick Dunne, one of Flynn's two unreliable narrators in this suspense novel, tells us that he is "a big fan of the lie of ommission",  we've already figured it out, thanks to Gillian Flynn's masterful ability to drop one twist after another into this chilling tale, in such as a way to cause a kind of literary double take of such magnitude that if it were a physical response, I'd by now be hospitalized with whiplash. We know he is a liar -- we just don't know what lies it is that he is telling, to whom, and about what. Until Flynn slips the truth in slyly and takes the reader's breath away. In all likelihood, this is the best thriller I'll read this year, and possibly this decade -- and I don't say that lightly. Flynn took me on a hair-raising journey, the equivalent of speeding along a slick, twisting highway at night, with not even a railing separating the car from a plunge down a cliff and into the ocean -- and I simply couldn't put the novel down. Every time I thought I had figured out where she was taking me -- and at what point this novel would relapse into classic "thriller mode", with a relatively predictable denouement -- she proved me wrong. Better yet, she made each twist completely convincing.

The novel itself is the saga of an unraveling marriage that climaxes in the disappearance of Amy Elliott Dunne, Nick's wife, on their fifth wedding anniversary. It's an ironic nod of sorts to so many true-life tragedies (there's even a vitriolic Nancy Grace-style television commentator!), but also a deep dive into a kind of toxic relationship that had me thinking three or four times about every individual I've come into contact with. Amy is the photo-perfect victim: blond, beautiful, the model for her parents' best-selling series of children's books featuring "Amazing Amy". But just how amazing is Amy? Well, fairly -- if perhaps not in the sense that we are used to viewing our "victims". Because, you see, Amy is our second unreliable narrator -- how much can we rely on what she tell us through her diary, or in person? The slow and gradual revelation of the layers of this story is tantalizing; the nature of what is revealed is chilling. And the real climax of the book is quite possibly the best I've read in any thriller -- Flynn shuns any thought of the "easy out" when looking for a conclusion. Good to hear this already has been optioned by Hollywood (Reese Witherspoon has apparently picked up the rights.) The bad news? Well, be prepared to distrust everything that anyone tells you and question even your relationship with your spouse. That's how convincing a tag time of unreliable narrators can be in creating an ominous atmosphere. This is going to stay with you for weeks, and will chill you to the bone no matter how hot it is outside. 4.5 stars. 

 Anne Enright's latest novel, The Forgotten Waltz, is a different kettle of fish. It's a literary novel, not a mystery or suspense yarn, and the narrator isn't consciously deceiving us, her readers. Rather, she is deceiving herself -- but it's up to the reader to decide when that takes place. Are her lies about not being interested in the married man she first meets at her sister's holiday barbeque? Or is she lying about being happy later, after both she and he have left their spouses (not a spoiler: it becomes clear that this is the denouement fairly early on in the novel) and moved in together? When Gina first meets the man who will become her lover, she reflects, he "is just a little rip in the fabric of my life. I can stitch it all up again, if he does not turn around." This novel captured for me, better than any other I have yet read, the irrationality and occasional downright inconvenience of unexpected love. Gina Moynihan knows not only that this is a person who is married and thus technically out of bounds, even if she weren't already with the man who will become her husband; she is also clear-eyed, at least in retrospect, about the many ways in which she finds him odd or even how he should not appeal to her. And yet...  Gina evaluates her own behavior and finds it as irrational as others might; describing and not really falling into the trap of rationalizing or excusing her actions. But is she deceiving us?

To many, Gina will end up being not merely a mildly unreliable narrator but a downright unappealing one, to boot. She's an adulterer -- and apparently is rewarded for her misbehavior, in contrast to Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina, who suffer miseries before they expire for their sins. Unacceptable, immoral behavior to many. But it's about real-life situations, and it's a story about getting what you think you want and then realizing that life is still "real life".  Gina recognizes this: "I thought it would be a different life, but sometimes it is like the same life in a dream: a different man coming in the door, a different man hanging his coat on the hook... I don't know what I expected. That receipts would not have to be filed, or there would be no such thing as bad kitchen cabinets .... Sean exists. He arrives, he leaves. He forgets to ring me when he is late and so the dinner is mistimed... sometimes the intractability of him, perhaps of all men, drives me up the wall."

Enright has found a lot of critics for letting the story be told by a relatively unrepentant and unapologetic Gina rather than by one of the "victims" of the story. But Enright doesn't ask us to approve of Gina's choices or even to let her off scott-free with her rationalizations or self-justifications. It's one woman's story, and I rated it 4.4 stars despite the occasionally rambling, discursive style that left me feeling claustrophobically trapped inside the narrator's head.

Three very different books; three different kinds of unreliable narrators -- and three very good novels.


  1. Gillespie and I really is a masterclass on unreliable narrators, isn't it? I will admit to being fooled by Harriet initially, some of the clues are so subtle that I missed them and it's only when lots of them accumulated that I realised how wrong I had been!

    Have you read Zoe Heller's 'Notes on a Scandal'? Excellent unreliable narrator in that book too.

  2. Sam, you're actually the second person to have suggested Zoe Heller's novel to me! I think I have a later novel of hers on my Kindle, but obviously will have to put in a library request for "Notes on a Scandal"... And yes, I STILL don't know what to think of Harriet! It's funny -- this is a book that is hard to discuss in front of people who haven't read it yet, because there are so many moments that stop you in your tracks and make you think about everything you have been led to believe up that point...

  3. When I finished Gillespie and I, I wanted to go right back to the beginning and start reading again Suzanne, to see what clues Harris planted that I missed. Because, honestly, I was well into the novel before I started to question Harriet. What a manipulator Harris is! (BTW, it never made the shortlist and that is the travesty.)Gone Girl, on the other hand, had me questioning Nick just about from page one before dropping the Amy bomb. I guess now I really have to read Enright's novel.