How We Tell Stories Matters

By Duffy Lampen ’17

Humanity has been telling stories for thousands of years. From cave paintings to theatrical performances, people have developed nuanced ways of conveying information. In the 21st century one of the most common modes of storytelling is through the novel, often hinging on the story-telling capabilities of a first-person narrator. Contemporary literature has experienced a flourish of creativity surrounding narrative styles pertaining to the role of unreliable narration as a tool for storytelling. The uncertainty this genre of narration creates affects both the style and plot of the novel while also opening up avenues for political and social expression. Aaron Cully Drake’s first novel Do You Think This is Strange? and Nicole Krauss’s novel The History of Love utilize this trend, including narrators who are youthfully naïve, intellectually disabled, or bordering senility.

One major function of unreliable narration is to create new ways that readers interact with stories through plot. Drake’s protagonist, Freddy, slowly remembers his mother’s death and the truth surrounding her last hours. Since Freddy has repressed this major incident throughout the novel, the plot propels via the reader’s and Freddy’s simultaneous unearthing of the mystery. Krauss similarly uses the unreliable narration in her books, implementing two first-person narrators, Alma Singer and Leo Gursky. Again, these characters give the audience knowledge piece-by-piece, yet it is always under suspect. Gursky, an elderly Polish man, is sliding towards senility. All his remarks and conclusions as a narration, therefore, are dubious and color the reader’s interpretation of the plot. The most grandiose example of this is when the reader discovers that Bruno, Gursky’s longtime friend present throughout the novel, has actually been dead for over 50 years.

Unreliable narrators also recreate the style of storytelling in books through creative aestheticism. Krauss uses Gursky’s moments of senility to construct aesthetically pleasing passages of confusion in sections of the book. For example,  the book ends with Gursky sitting next to young Alma, unable to discern whether she is a stranger or his childhood love. Similarly, 15-year-old Alma’s unreliable narration, spurred from her naiveté and youth, engenders plot changes while also creating aesthetic pleasures for readers. As a young mind, Alma narrates her story through the usage of lists, enumerating her thoughts in an easy-to-follow format. This uncommon mode of script initially shocks the reader out of the common trends of prose writing.

A third and more abstract use of this trend is to help audiences empathize and understand the inner workings of unique identity groups such as individuals with intellectual disabilities. Drake’s novel is one of several novels written in the last 15 years that uses a narrator with an intellectual disability. Many of these authors consciously advocate for this identity group, equipped with personal experiences to create realistic depictions. For instance, Drake’s daughter is on the autistic spectrum. Without defining these narrators by their disabilities, authors such as Drake integrate examples of how intellectual disabilities may manifest themselves, illustrating the unique perspective that these people possess. Drake simultaneously implements humor into this informative process by showing how certain individuals with intellectual disabilities have trouble understanding idioms or figurative language. Freddy describes his complex desire to be alone yet also be accepted in a way that teaches readers certain paradoxes that result from not only his disability but from society’s rejection and exclusion of him. Creative usage of first-person narration opens a door for authors to explain difficult ideas such as complex embodiment theory—the belief that disability is constructed through both medical and social influences.

The recent experimentation revolving around unreliable narration has enabled writers to interact with the written word in entirely new ways. This trend not only questions how people can tell stories, but it reinforces the power of narrative as a tool for bringing awareness to marginalized groups. Only time will tell what other effects this tool will precipitate.

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