sunday post: reliable narrator.
by Michael King
I’m beginning to suspect I’m not the hero in this story. Not always, anyway. Maybe not even most days.
I’ve got the best of intentions, of course. I gathered them with great care, actually –– ran my palms over the world as I ran through it, mined lessons from the wounds in my sternum. Brave, I etched into my forearm, reminding me that, if I can be brave, even when it’s daunting, I may not have so many nights sharing an empty hotel room with regret. Love, I scribbled onto every page, into the margins’ margins, embarking on a mission to wander the world and leave love letters in my wake. Gentle. Kind. Sincere. Authentic. Warm. Inspire good things. Leave people braver/kinder/gentler/mightier than I find them. Live and share a worthy story.
And so it’s been. In the first waking hour of most of my days, I think over each of these intentions at least once. In the shower, I brush suds over the word brave and watch it re-emerge in the rinsing, temporarily at its boldest.
But, not fifteen minutes later, I’m staring daggers into somebody stopping me up on the sidewalk, momentarily lost in her phone. She sees my gaze and recoils a bit, shuffling to let me pass. That weekend, during barstool banter, I get on a roll doing an impression of a co-worker, and the laughter beckons me to continue on, and I’m cruel, and unclever, miles away from brave. Later that month, in the midst of a workday, I meet a student in distress with impatience and efficiency, neither warm nor gentle.
I get it. We’re all human, all prone to fumbling our best intentions and watching them scuttle across the kitchen tile. Each of us will discover what it is to crumble the very person we were trying to love, to leave scars on the parts of their being we meant to cradle.
But do I remember this about myself, in the present tense, with attention to the concrete detail of the life I’m living? Or, in pursuit of building this story, have I become addicted to positioning myself the hero? Flawed, but only to an extent that makes me more lovable? Broken, but only so I will get to reassemble, better and braver, by next chapter?
In college, I took a course surrounding banned and challenged media in United States history. Near the end of the semester, we read Lolita, a controversial novel by Vladimir Nabokov. Its narrator, Humbert Humbert, is a pedophile, and Lolita is the name of the fourteen-year-old he kidnaps and victimizes.
As the narrator, Humbert Humbert consistently works to coax the reader into understanding his behavior. He is not harming Lolita, he explains, but loving her in a way that she has always needed. He is her rescuer, her caretaker, her lover. When describing the other characters in the novel, Humbert Humbert is equally persuasive –– a concerned official is brutish, Lolita’s mother is broken and desperate to die, Lolita is willing and eager.
In literary terms, Humbert Humbert is an unreliable narrator. The story he’s sharing with us cannot be taken at face value, as his intent is to bend the reader’s perceptions into seeing him as a hero. In the first or second grade, I remember reading a version of The Three Little Pigs, but the Werewolf narrated the story. Reading these stories exercises a reader’s ability to listen, discern, and decide what may be the actual truth.
Lately, I’ve been grappling with the idea of the unreliable narrator. Specifically, I’ve been pulling threads related to a question: In the story I’m telling, am I a reliable narrator?
Because here’s what we leave in our wake when we insist on maintaining our positions as the hero of our own story: If we are always the heroes, then the people who stand at odds with us must always be villains. The people who hurt us, despite our heroic best intentions, are reduced to inhuman dimensions –– they are abusive, reckless, cowardly, dishonest. And, ultimately, when we are inevitably bruised by the very people working to love us (and even when we bruise them), we may be tempted to look for wrong in them.
In my life, I have worked to love a few unreliable narrators. When I have failed them, in one form or another, I have felt the tearing pain of watching them smear white paint over my good qualities, over the stories where I loved them well. More often than not, the pain wears away, and they soften, forgive the failure, peel white paint into flakes on the ground, but the love doesn’t feel as honest as before. Suddenly, it’s tentative.
To be a reliable narrator, I not only need to acknowledge the times I fail to live up to my best intentions, but I need to examine my story as I’m writing it down. If a lover leaves me, and I’m pulling meaning as quickly as I can from the bleeding wounds, am I remembering the story accurately? Or, on my shakiest and most broken mornings, and I wrapping myself up in a story that comforts me?
Because the truth is that nobody in my story is the worst scar they’ve inflicted upon me. Sure, I can pull up anecdotes in vivid detail, jot down paragraphs that convince you that he was a reckless boyfriend, she was a cruel friend, this teacher was a bully, this family member didn’t love me correctly. But, when I remember to be gentle, to stop and consider them each fully, I often recall times they made me feel warm, heard, held. And, if I’m honest, I’ve had to dig some of those pages out of the wastebasket. Uncrumple them. Restore the story.
Maybe there are no heroes. Perhaps the very notion of heroism sets us up for disappointment, watching in horror as our heroes tumble from the pedestals we built for them. None of us is the worst thing we’ve done, it’s true, but neither are we strictly the people we show up as on our finest days.
We owe it to ourselves to examine the story we’re telling, not just to others, but to ourselves. If we want to exist in honest dimensions, both the mess and the magic, we have to fight to see everybody else with honest eyes: brave but breaking, cruel enough to inflict but kind enough to heal, shaking in fear and bounding boldly ahead. We.