Friday, June 10, 2016

Don't Believe A Word I Say

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  Remember that game show To Tell The Truth? It was on too late for me to watch when I was a little kid but I could hear the TV in the living room as I listened from bed. I didn’t really need to see., right? Just listen. The key, remember, was to guess which of three contestants was “the real” chicken-plucker or Nobel prize winner. In fact, it had some amazing contestants: Hunter Thompson, and Garry Trudeau, and Orville Redenbacher and Gene Roddenberry. Wrong-Way Corrigan and Caroll Spinney.

ANYWAY. That show was all about lying. About being unreliable. And we loved it!  Now, we put liars in our books. Or, are they really lying? Maybe they are just telling us the truth as they perceive it.
  
Our Obsession with Unreliable Narrators

Unreliable narrators are more popular than ever, appearing in novels from Gone Girl, to Pretty Baby, to The Girl on the Train. We enjoy having someone lie to us- at least on the page. In some cases we doubt them from page one, and in others there’s a twist in the narrative that stops us in our tracks and forces us to rethink everything that came before. It’s that uncertainty that keeps us turning pages.

Reading is the ultimate voyeur activity. You have the opportunity to crawl inside someone’s head. Reading allows you to try out, even for just a few hundred pages, what it is like to be someone else.  You can imagine what it must be like to be a spy, to survive the French Revolution, or having to hide a body after an unexpected murder. But what if you can’t trust the person whose head you are in? There’s something fascinating about being inside someone’s point of view, yet still uncertain if you can put your trust in him or her.

All first person narrators have an element of unreliability. I’ve worked as a counselor and one of the first things you learn about human behavior is is that reality is always filtered through the lens of the person telling the story. There is what objectively happens, but as anyone who has read comments on Facebook knows- almost more important than what is said, is how it’s interpreted.

Narrators are often unreliable because they can’t (or won’t) admit their real motivations to others, or in some cases, even to themselves. They want to control the story so they can manipulate how they’re seen.  Part of the appeal of an unreliable narrator is seeing how they twist events to fit their view of reality. As readers we recognize at some level how we’ve done that in our own lives and we want to see how the character will make sense of their actions and justifications.

Stories with unreliable narrators provide us the opportunity to “Nancy Drew” the situation, looking for clues to the real story. We pride ourselves on being able to see through the character. We filter details and weigh their importance- ultimately deciding what’s true or false.  In the same way that a reader of mystery novels enjoys putting together the clues, racing to solve the crime along with (or even slightly before) the detective, readers of unreliable narrators like trying to resolve the mystery of why people do what they do.

Even if we remove the potentially sinister aspects of an unreliable narrator- the fact remains they’re fun. They’re the wild girl you knew in high school who might do anything at any moment. They’re the politician who says something and then denies ever having uttered that comment a second later with their eyes wide and innocent, leaving you questioning your own sanity. They leave you off balance, and while you may not trust them- they’re never dull.

Writers love creating these characters.  It’s an opportunity to create an individual who can’t be taken at their word, who requires exploration.  And if that exploration keeps readers turning pages long into the night, promising themselves just one more chapter- then I can live with that.  

HAK: Yup.I just read I LET YOU GO. Whoa. And it totally got me. (Have you all read that?)

What do you all think about this “unreliable” thing? Is it new? Or is it as it has always has been--and must be?




 Eileen Cook is a multi-published author with her novels appearing in eight different languages. Her books have been optioned for film and TV.  She spent most of her teen years wishing she were someone else or somewhere else, which is great training for a writer. Her newest book, WITH MALICE, will be out in June 2016. You can read more about Eileen, her books, and the things that strike her as funny at www.eileencook.com. Eileen lives in Vancouver with her husband and two very naughty dogs and no longer wishes to be anyone or anywhere else.




WITH MALICE

In the tradition of Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train and E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars, this gripping, addictive thriller will blow you away.
Eighteen-year-old Jill Charron wakes up in a hospital room, leg in a cast, stitches in her face and a big blank canvas where the last 6 weeks should be. She comes to discover she was involved in a fatal accident while on a school trip in Italy three days previous but was jetted home by her affluent father in order to receive quality care. Care that includes a lawyer. And a press team. Because maybe the accident...wasn’t an accident. Wondering not just what happened but what she did, Jill tries to piece together the events of the past six weeks before she loses her thin hold on her once-perfect life.
Two friends, an exotic foreign location, the potential for revenge and jealousy, and an accident that looks like it might have been murder. It didn’t matter what the truth was - what mattered was that it was fun to talk about.
A gripping and addictive read that grabs the reader and yanks them into a world where nothing is what it seems and where everyone is a suspect. You won’t believe how it ends.








45 comments:

Joan Emerson said...

Oh, Hank, I have wonderful memories of watching “To Tell The Truth” with my grandmother.

I think the unreliable narrator has always been around; I particularly enjoy seeing how the story comes together as a result . . .
Eileen, I really enjoyed reading “With Malice” . . . the media ultra-frenzy really spun up the story and I loved Anna!

Karen in Ohio said...

The synopsis of With Malice gave me the shivers! Sounds wonderful.

Another very good and recent book with an unreliable narrator is Tell the Wolves I'm Home.

Reine said...

Sounds great! In that light I loved Gone Girl, but now and then I find myself wondering...

Ann in Rochester said...

I am a big fan of the lying skunk narrator, especially when I have no idea I'm being flim-flammed. I LET YOU GO was one of those, yikes. Nothing is what it seems in that one. Yet the title is very telling.

The trouble with lying, both in fiction and in life, is that you need a really good memory. On the other hand, a lie repeated often enough takes on a mantle of truth.



Gram said...

Agatha Christie did that and what an uproar about fairness!

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Welcome, Eileen! I love an unreliable narrator and am off to find your book!

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Also a big fan of multiple narrators. Has anyone read TIGERS IN RED WEATHER? Loved that book.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

So agree! I absolutely remember reading Roger Ackroyd and gasping--I must have been a teenager.

And we were talking earlier about it being better not to know there was a twist --that's even morebimportant in "unreliable" books!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

I don't know Tigers, Susan -- I am On the hunt for a title and that one is intriguing!

Hallie Ephron said...

Um... My mother was once a contestant on To Tell The Truth. She was the one who wasn't lying... They guessed her (she was a screenwriter). Of course they guessed her.

I like unreliable narrators but they're really hard to write. It works in Gone Girl because you're actually reading her diary which Amy deliberately left behind to mislead. And it works in Girl on the Train because she's an alcoholic who blacks out... she really doesn't know. It works in Defending Jacob because Landay uses trial transcript to plant the lies.

What I don't like is a narrator who just plays fast and loose with what he tells the reader, and then I can feel the author behind the scenes pulling the strings, manipulating me. Never a good thing. Eileen, how do you walk that line?

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

I don't know the Wolf book either, Karen, but there does seem to be a theme. Titles with wild animals equal unreliable narrators. Hmm.

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

And then there's Rosellen Brown's BEFORE AND AFTER — multiple narrators, who's reliable?

Mary Sutton said...

Personally, I'm kind of iffy on unreliable narrators. I loved The Murder of Roger Ackroyd but I just couldn't get into Gone Girl. Perhaps because I already had a fondness for Christie's characters and I didn't want to spend time with Amy and company? I don't know.

I do agree with Hallie that unreliable narrators are difficult to write - and I absolutely don't like it when I can almost "see" the author pulling the strings, as she puts it. Yuck.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Oh, Hallie what a great story! Hilarious. Why "of course?"

ANd yes, when the author is actively leaving out something, that's when it doesn't work. You can't simply not tell the reader something..so in the end the reader is angry and feels duped, rather than delighted.

Do you know Lynn Raimondo's books--her main character is blind, and that's such a great idea. it truly works.

Julia said...

Hallie, speaking of your mother, the girls and I just watched your parents' film, THE DESK SET last night. It was great, and SO filled with brilliant and competent female characters. Makes me wish the Ephrons were still writing movies today.

I enjoy an unreliable character - we discussed this a bit last week when we were talking about different types of mysteries. I think the most interesting and subtle kind is where the narrator doesn't know she's not telling the truth or seeing the whole picture, but the reader does.

A fascinating variation on the unreliable is the Edgar-Award-winning THE CAVEMAN'S VALENTINE, which features a homeless paranoid schizophrenic who witnessed a murder - on his unplugged TV. It's an amazing dive into what's real or not, which is the conjurer's trick with every unreliable narrator: ultimately, the reader is trying to discern truth from falsehood in a story that is entirely invented by the author.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Oh these books sound great! Everyone is somewhat unreliable though, right? It's just whether the author relies on that as the plot device, or whether it is simply about understanding the well-meaning but unavoidable perceptions the character has.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Little known Jungle Red fact:
When Hallie and I were brainstorming what to call it, I said : "How about Desk Set? It's my favorite movie."
And she said: my parents wrote it.
I had NO idea!

Keenan Powell said...

In my law practice, I tell my clients that truth is like a multi-faceted stone. We see the truth from our POV; the other guy sees the truth from his POV which may not be opposite. One may be looking from the side, one down at the table, one looking past the cuts into the stone etc. The blind man/elephant metaphor is probably better. Anyway, that is the genesis of conflict so, I say, it's always been and shall always be.

Kristopher said...

I love unreliable narrators, but I do fear that the term is getting used too loosely of late. In many cases what is being termed unreliable is really just that particular person's perspective - there is no duping intended. They are simply unreliable because they themselves don't know the truth.

I LET YOU GO is a brilliant example, Hank. WOW, what an incredible book. But in this case, I don't think the "main" narrator was unreliable - at least in terms of that major twist. I can't go into more without spoilers, but if you think about it, I think you will understand what I mean. My spoiler-free review goes into this a bit more: http://bolobooks.com/2015/12/i-let-you-go-the-bolo-books-review-uk-edition/

charlene said...

I loved to tell the truth! also I think this lie thing has always been there. this book is on my tbr list, sounds interesting.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

The other thing about I Let You Go is that I thought that right after the beginning , it was so slow that I almost gave up. But because I'd heard so much about it I kept going--and wow. Kristopher, you and I will have to discuss the end-end. Xx

Deborah Romano said...

I really, really hate deliberately deceptive narrators. If I know ahead of time that the narrator is deceptive, I won't bother reading the book. (But I loved The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I read it decades ago and occasionally think about reading it again!)

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Deceptive can be one thing, unreliable is another. Right?

Lisa Alber said...

This discussion gets me thinking about first person versus third person. Do you think the new fascination with unreliable narrators started more specifically with unreliable narrators in first-person stories? GONE GIRL seemed to started something, that's for sure...

I'm writing an unreliable narrator right now (I write in multiple thirds). It is challenging! But so very very fun too. What's fun are characters who are unreliable to themselves too--in which they're pretty sure they know what's going on but also have issues (mental health, PTSD, etcetera) that make them uncertain they know what's going on.

"psychological suspense" -- this term has been around for awhile. Is this what we're talking about?

Oh, and Sophie Hannah! She's so good at this. What about Ruth Rendell?

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

Such an interesting essay and discussion. Lisa, you said what I was thinking--even people who think they are entirely sane, see things through their own lens and their own history and they are bound to interpret things that way. Is that unreliable or simply the human condition?

I will be very interested to read this book Eileen!

Kathy Reel said...

Oh, Hank, I read an early copy of I Let You Go in February, and it gobsmacked the heck out of me. For me, it is easily one of my favorite books of 2016 and of all times. The unreliable narrator, if that term does apply here, was perfection. I do wish everyone would read this amazing book and experience the twist that reveals the "unreliability." Hank, count me in on the discussion with Kristopher about the end. Erin Mitchell sent me the book and Kristopher highly recommended it, two people I trust absolutely with recommendations. I'm going to offer up my spoiler-free review, too. https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1550598965

Eileen, With Malice is a definite future read for me. It sounds thrilling, chilling, and full of intrigue. So happy that you are here today and I found another great author to read.

Oh, and To Tell the Truth was such an interesting show. I'd love to see some old reruns of it sometime.



Pat D said...

Capcha hates me today. I will try this once more. Eileen, With Malice sounds like a must-read book! As in I must read it. I remember watching To Tell the Truth. Didn't Bud Collier host it? I read Girl on a Train and got pulled in pretty quickly. I had to pay attention to whose POV it was and what time period. Fascinating. And it sounds like I have to read I Let You Go too.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Kathy, I think that perfectly illustrates why ILYG works--the narrator is NOT unreliable. She's telling the real truth every minute. That's what makes it so amazing--and of course, writer-geek me went back and checked the whole thing t make sure it was fair. It is!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Yes, Pat D, he was the host for a long time! And can't you just hear the announcer say: Will the REAL...".

And "psychological suspense," yes,,, wonder,though, if suspsne isn;t all psychological, in so many ways?

ANd yes, Lisa, I agree about multiple thirds,of curse. SO much fun to play with perception!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Eileen Cook is traveling! SO I hope she'll land and come check in soon!

Reine said...

Desk Set... great movie.

Karen in Ohio said...

Children make terrific unreliable narrators. Sometimes they are just mistaken, but they also lie. Sometimes they tell themselves stories, which are sometimes lies, and sometimes wishful or magical thinking, to save themselves from reality.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Of COURSE I mean of course, above, not of curse. Though writing multiple thirds sometimes requires cursing. xoo

Lisa Alber said...

Hah, Hank -- I understood you. And I agree--sometimes cursing a must when wrangling multiple thirds. :-)

Eileen said...

Hello Everyone- I am traveling today, but was so excited to log in and see all these comments. Thanks for having me! One thing I wanted to tackle in the book who is unreliable even to herself.

If people are looking for a fun psychological twister with three narrators (that leaves you wondering which one you can trust) consider The Good Goodbye, What I enjoy is what Hank mentioned with the realization that everyone is unreliable to some degree - it depends on perspective. Much like in I Let You Go

For me psychological suspense is around the idea of a lack of trust and safety- because you can't either believe others around you or even yourself.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Yes, the Good Goodbye--so fascinating! Other recommendations--The Widow. ANd oh, WHAT SHE KNEW. Which is great.

Safe travels Eileen--hope you are someplace wonderful!

Eileen said...

Working my way from the top. Thanks Joan I did research on the Amanda Knox trial for the book and part of what fascinated me was the media frenzy

And along with a few others I loved Gone Girl. But I think it was a difficult character to like. Do others people think readers are less likely to enjoy a book with an unpleasant main character?

Elisabeth said...

Not on unreliable narrators, but on unreliable memory of old TV shows.
My gray-haired brain remembers Bud Collier as host of Beat the Clock and Gary Moore as host of To Tell The Truth...but then, I think that I may be at least 10 years old than most of you. I was old enough to stay up to watch To Tell The Truth. It was, however, the "last show before bedtime."
Thank you for these great discussions every day.

Kathy Reel said...

Just wanted to add that I loved The Good Goodbye by Carla Buckley, too! Oh, and for a young adult/teen book that has an unreliable narrator, have any of you read We Were Liars by E. Lockhart? It was out and very popular in 2014. I read it, my adult daughter read it, and her teen daughter read it. Talk about screaming at the end, I was and saying, "no,no,no,no,no!" I felt that one was a bit unfair, but I might have felt that way because I was so horrified.

Pat D said...

Good memory Elisabeth. I looked up Bud Collier. He hosted Beat the Clock and then moved on to To Tell the Truth. Let's face it. Those game show hosts moved around a lot.

storytellermary said...

I remember watching as a family and each voicing our opinion on who was lying, just as we guessed the ending in Perry Mason. My first encounter with a totally unreliable narrator was _I Am the Cheese_ with it's total surprise ending.

Eileen said...

I am here in Chicago for Printers Row if anyone is local. Big thanks to everyone for having me

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

The last show before bedtime --that is adorable. Xxx

We did that too,!on Perry Mason--but we were not allowed to talk during the show!

Reine said...

Hank, same for me with Perry Mason. I loved that!

Elisabeth said...

Pat D, thanks for the research...Good to know that we were both right. I remember when Gary Moore had a variety show on day time and then night time TV. (The night time one was past my bedtime, but was an occasional treat) Carol Burnett got her TV start on these shows.