Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Hints of Unreliability

In his New Yorker review of John Wray’s Lowboy, a novel acclaimed for its evocation of schizophrenia, James Wood examines the details that lead readers to believe in a narrator’s unreliable point of view:

In standard third-person narration, a tiny slippage often suffices to alert us to a character’s fiction-making. For instance, if I were describing the New York subway, in the third person, from the point of view of a sixteen-year-old boy, and I wrote, “The doors closed after ten seconds and the station fell away,” […it] would be unexceptionable. If, however, I wrote, “The doors closed after exactly ten seconds and the station fell resignedly away,” the two adverbs might stiffen the reader’s posture. Who is this boy, for whom exactitude is so maniacally important, yet who also sees the world so lyrically? And if I wrote, “The train fit into the tunnel perfectly,” or “He decided to get out at Columbus Circle. To his surprise it happened very simply,” the reader would sense a world of mental difficulty, in which trains may not always fit properly into tunnels and a teen-age boy may not always negotiate the exiting of a train.
Wood has engaged me into accepting this fiction, and such a character, by the time he excerpts a passage from the novel:

The train pulled into the next station and the car began to fill with halfdead people. That’s the tiredness, thought Lowboy. They want to curl up on the ground and go to sleep. He yawned at them as they came in, showing them his teeth, and some of them yawned back.
Psychologists say that empathy increases the contagiousness of yawns. I must say, I’m yawning.

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