This summer I brought my children to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. We wandered happily through the museum’s summer exhibition of Israeli artists, browsing Reuben Rubin’s enormous family portrait and Henry Shelesnyak’s tiny, peculiar Lincoln collages. My daughter, age seven, loves art. She inspected Israeli artist Gali Cnaani’s deconstructed weavings and debated which fabrics she would choose to wear. She thrilled to the interactive exhibit on circles and wheels, drawing her own bicycle design and making a sculpture out of sprockets and tubes. We got a snack in the pretty museum café and she declared that the cookies were the “best ever.” Afterwards, we reunited with her mother, who was sitting outside in the museum piazza, reading a book in the sunshine.
“How was the museum?” my wife asked, smiling.
“Terrible,” my daughter replied.
The term unreliable narrator is widely credited to University of Chicago literary scholar Wayne C. Booth. In The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961), he writes, “I have called a narrator reliable when he speaks for or acts in accordance with the norms of the work (which is to say, the implied author’s norms), unreliable when he does not.”
This first definition has evolved many times since then, growing to indicate the many ways in which narrators might prove themselves unreliable. William Riggan and other literary scholars have even given us precise taxonomies of unreliable narrators and their ways. These include exaggerators, fools, the young and naive, the mentally ill, and many more—a beautiful wide world of liars and deceivers.
It’s curious how often we encounter unreliable narrators when we read. In real life, few of us would admit to enjoying being deceived on a daily basis. We would especially resent being deceived by someone we love (or have given birth to). But a book is another space entirely. We are lied to often on the page, on screen. Sometimes we are in on the joke, and sometimes we are fooled until the end. We take pleasure in the scheme or feel shocked when all is revealed. In any case, we go back, again and again, to the page and await the lie.
I’m no different. My favorite narrators are unreliable. There is Giacomo Casanova, the primo exaggerator, whose many adventures, sexual and otherwise, are unlikely to be fully accurate—but enormous fun, nonetheless. (Casanova, obviously, was writing in a very different memoiristic environment than the present. Imagine Casanova brought before Oprah to account for his literary crimes.) There is Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne’s brilliant invention, whose complex and intentionally self-contradicting account of his own life stands as one of the great literary performances.
Why do we enjoy the presence of such untrustworthy companions? A book is a peculiar place for deception, both a safe space and an intimate one all at once. Even more so than when we are reading a trustworthy voice, when we are in the presence of an unreliable narrator, we feel as if a whole intricate apparatus is being erected just for us, for our pleasure or learning, a high-wire performance for our behalf alone. “I know there are readers in the world…,” Tristram Shandy tells us, “Who find themselves ill at ease, unless they are let into the whole secret from first to last.”
Perhaps it isn’t so different outside the book either; after all, my daughter would not have misrepresented her museum experience to anyone else—only to her mother, the person she feels closest to in all the world. Someone she trusted to see through her claim but understand it at the same time.
In that sense, perhaps it isn’t misrepresentation at all. My daughter is small for her age, a fifth percentiler, as we parents say, inevitably the shortest in her class (though she always insists it’s a tie). You’re no bigger than a minute, a workman once told her. But even the smallest third grader, it seems, has space for the contradictions we all feel. And the language to express them.
Maybe what we sometimes call unreliable narration is not deception—but rather a person expressing two truths, albeit ones that exist uneasily in the same space. Pleasure and longing. A desperate feeling that pulls in two directions at once. As in, yes the museum was fun and yes it was terrible without you there. How many times has each of us felt a similar pull?
In the end, we are all still trying to figure out this notion of speaking to the world both directly and indirectly, that basic need we sometimes call narration. In 2011, the Journal of Literary Theory devoted an entire issue to the subject of the unreliable narrator. In the preface, the editors write, “after a decade of reconsideration, the concept of unreliable narration seems to be more in need of clarification than ever before.” Could it be any other way?