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Sunday, April 15, 2012

Unreliable, naive narrators and The Sense of an Ending

The narrator of a novel usually, although not always, also is the protagonist. It's the ultimate "it's all about me" kind of storytelling, epitomized by David Copperfield in the novel by Charles Dickens. "Chapter 1: I am born."

Some narrators are trustworthy. Their world is seen only through their eyes, but they can be trusted to tell all they know and not to skew the facts in order to fool you. And then there are the narrators who either have fooled themselves so well you can't trust them or who are so arch they cannot be trusted. These unreliable narrators are at the core of some of the finest storytelling we've known, from Chaucer to Wilkie Collins to Stevens in Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day.                                                                                      

Just as rewarding for the reader who likes to be involved in discerning who or what to believe is the naive narrator, such as Huck Finn. He accepts slavery as a normal part of his world and recognizes that, in his world, he will go to hell for helping Jim. And decides he can live with having transgressed. His acceptance is not the same as deciding that his world is wrong. Naive narrators are not reliable either, but it's because they don't know the ramifications of everything that's going on. Stevens is this kind of narrator for most of The Remains of the Day. His single moment of near-realization is devastating in the novel, and he backs away from self-knowledge quickly to return to self-delusion.

Sometimes deciding whether the narrator can be trusted takes up a good deal of the reader's attention. This was me when reading Julian Barnes's The Sense of an Ending, which won the Man Booker Prize last year.

Tony Webster is in his late middle age, divorced yet still on good terms with his ex-wife, the steady Margaret, distant yet polite with his daughter, the preoccupied Susie. His story begins with odds and ends of his time at school and university with his mates and first serious girlfriend, Veronica. Adrian, a newcomer at school, becomes part of his circle. A schoolmate commits suicide after his girlfriend becomes pregnant. At university, Veronica appears to be a tease but Tony says he doesn't mind. He meets her family one weekend and no one appears impressed. His friends meet her and, again, no one appears impressed. After Tony and Veronica break up, he gets a letter from Adrian that he and Veronica are now in a relationship. Tony's life goes on. But Adrian later kills himself.

In the second half of this small, densely packed novel, Tony gets notice that the mother of his former girlfriend has died, leaving him money and an item. The item turns out to be the diary of Adrian, his former friend whose mind and demeanor Tony admired so greatly at school. It is in Veronica's possession

Trying to get that diary, the cat-and-mouse game they play with each other and the inability of either of them to communicate honestly and thoroughly with each other form the main section of the book. These are two people who engaged in tit-for-tat to the nth degree. When they break up, he takes a milk jug she'd given him to Oxfam. Later, he discovers in its place at the shop a small colored lithograph he had given her as a Christmas present. No slight is too small to be reciprocated.

But is Tony unreliable or naive? Is he trying to fool us or did he fool himself because he didn't know better? I decided both are true. It's both honest declaration and a warning when Tony notes early on: "If I can't be sure of the actual events any more, I can at least be true to the impressions those facts left. That's the best I can manage."

The turning point is the actual wording of the letter Tony sent to Adrian and Veronica when they told him they were involved. Originally, Tony tells us his reaction was a "best of luck, Old Bean" postcard. Weeks later, he says he wrote back a short note.

When we read the actual letter later on, it is filled with hatred and spite, and lays a curse on them. Tony reacts with great shock. But after his initial memory of his letter is related, Barnes has Tony think over what he means by calling Veronica damaged and what that term in general means. It's a crucial passage both to the plot (where what happened to Adrian involves Veronica and her family, with Veronica left with the consequences decades later) and to Barnes's purpose regarding memory and how we view what we have done and what we think about ourselves:
I certainly believe we all suffer damage, one way or another. How could we not, except in a world of perfect parents, siblings, neighbours, companions? And then there is the question, on which so much depends, of how we react to the damage: whether we admit it or repress it, and how this affects our dealings with others. Some admmit the damage, and try to mitigate it; some spend their lives trying to help others who are damaged; and then there are those whose main concern is to avoid further damage to themselves, at whatever cost. And those are the ones who are ruthless, and the ones to be careful of.
Isn't that last category Tony himself? This is the man who plots devious ways to communicate with his ex-girlfriend because she has something he wants, something he thinks he deserves, in the same way that he carried on a campaign over damage caused by tree roots to his house. His steady, stable (according to him) ex-wife called Veronica "the Fruitcake", but look at who she married and who she wants to have take her on a long weekend holiday with the money he inherits from the Fruitcake's mother.

These characters evoke both revulsion and sorrow. Their story is filled with failings of character, and with the lies they've told themselves and others. The twists of revelation at the conclusion only reinforce the wisdom Tony imparts midway through the book:
...When we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.
Barnes's novel reveals how reliable our own unreliability is in shaping how we think we've lived.


  1. This book is told in the first person by a character who is very bright but does not have much of interest to say about himself. That seems to be part of the point--that his "instinct for survival" makes him unreliable as a narrator. But it also makes him a rather dull companion, and in the end the plot around the death of his friend seems rather contrived to make a particular point about memory and history. The narrator's response to it is ultimately kind of trite, which might have been the point as well, but if so, not a very compelling one. I listened to the audio but reread a couple of sections at the library and I think this is one that is better to read on your own--the audio version is too arch.

  2. Excellent point about the difference between reading and hearing. I don't think this novel would have had much impact on me had my experience been an audio book.