I’ve taken several speculative fiction literature classes, aka science fiction and fantasy, and in all those classes the issue of the narrator’s reliability is a discussion point that seems to comes up quite regularly. And quite frankly, I am tired of having the same discussion over and over again but with different titles, authors, and narrators. Here’s the thing, the narrator’s reliability is not important. What is important are the effects of the so called narrator’s reliability.
Choosing to discuss a fictional character’s reliability is ultimately useless for a couple of reasons, number one being that they are fictional and therefore do not exist.
I know, blasphemy, but let’s be real for a moment. This is like discussing what hurts more, child birth or being kicked in the balls, no one is ever going to know the answer to this. The point is, they both hurt. I’m not saying we should completely disregard the importance of a narrator’s reliability, but perhaps we should focus more on the effects of their narrating rather than questioning if we should believe them or not.
I recently read Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut and the narrator is one the most unreliable person I’ve read, especially because he chooses to believe Billy Pilgrim’s alien abduction and time travel claims. However, looking at the novel as a whole, it doesn’t matter if we believe he was really abducted or if he got all those ideas from reading science fiction novels, because what really matters are his experiences in the war, and more importantly, what came after. Their unreliability does not take away from the central message of this book, it adds to it.
Questioning their sanity however does take away from our understanding what Vonnegut intended, an anti-war novel. Whether or not he is telling the truth, Billy Pilgrim’s story will remain a war story, with aliens or without them. It’s a story about coping with death, coping with a war’s aftermath, and coping with PTSD (although that was not in the DSM yet). That’s what is important in this novel.
Another reason why I don’t see the importance of a narrator’s authenticity is because viewpoints, if done right, are completely tied to the character’s background and personality (like real people) therefore, it is completely subjective. I thought of this the other night when I read a review of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things (I’m amazed at my ability to mention this book all the time), where the reviewer was skeptical of Kellen and Wavy’s reliability in telling their story, and it drove me crazy because:
- I don’t see how that matters in the story.
- Their narrating is entirely subjective because of who they are.
Their storytelling is completely compromised by their background, or at least the lives Bryn Greenwood created for these characters. Wavy and Kellen’s lives are full of abuse, neglect, and come from troubled homes, all of which contribute to the way they look at the world. We, as people, shouldn’t expect others to see the world exactly as we do, so we shouldn’t expect it from the books we read either. Everyone has a different upbringing and experiences which undoubtedly shape the way one looks at the world, but it does not mean they are wrong though.
So instead of questioning the truth in fictional novels, which we know are already fake (it says it in the genre), we should leave the questioning objective narrators for non-fiction books who are the ones to claim they are telling us the truth.
So what do you think? Am I completely wrong? Do you think reliable character are important? Let me know in the comments!