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Monday, July 5, 2010

Here, in This Sun

A woman waits in an auto repair shop while her car is serviced. While waiting she is distracted by the glare of sunlight through the shop's windows, to the point where she envies the blind man waiting across from her, with his "deep black sunglass lenses." She goes on to ruminate about the lack of blind women in the town, at least in public places, and concludes that "even with a German Shepherd's protection" such women would be vulnerable to muggers and rapists. Odd thoughts for a woman to be harboring on an otherwise ordinary day at the auto shop. But then Anna—that's her name—is hot and tired ("She had often felt tired lately"), and even a little dizzy, and these oddly cynical thoughts might be ascribed at least in part to her exhaustion.

Then the litany of odd thoughts resumes with Anna concluding that "everyone in the [auto repair shop] waiting room" is vulnerable, at the mercy of mechanics "with their greasy fingers and wrenches clinking under their car hoods." She's convinced that the mechanics are out to rip her off, and furthermore that she deserves it for "sitting helplessly [at home] in her vinyl seat, watching Jeopardy" instead of teaching herself mechanics (one wonders if at the dentist's office she berates herself for not having gone to dental school). One begins to suspect that these aren't merely the ruminations of an exhausted and wary woman, but the warped notions of a paranoid. At the very least Anna is deeply depressed.

The world as interpreted by a mind slightly off its tether is the subject of this opening, one that makes for a good if disturbing read. I for one want to know more about this character who feels so undone by the rays of sunlight through a window that she wishes herself blind, and compares spare car parts to human organs "in nests of shredded packing paper."

In first-person fiction we call such a character "unreliable." What makes a narrative unreliable isn't usually that we're given the wrong facts, but that the world is presented through the distorting filter or tinted lens of a psyche that has lost its grasp on the objective world: i.e., that may see things very clearly, but doesn't see them as you and I would see them. Unreliable narratives are either void of perspective, or offer us perspectives that are warped.

A good example of this is the narrator of John Cheever's masterpiece "Goodbye, My Brother," who tells us up front that his family "has always been very close in spirit," then goes on to eviscerate said family and especially his brother, who by the story's end has been attacked not only verbally but physically, laid flat on his back with a saltwater-logged root. From the narrator's perspective this may pass for filial devotion, but Cheever's readers are bound to see things differently, as he meant us to.

Another prime example of an unreliable protagonist is the butler in Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, a man rendered so emotionally comatose by his inured sense of propriety that when given his once real chance at love he botches it. It's a terribly sad story, rendered sadder for being told by its victim who doesn't even see how sad it is, or even that he's the victim.

But the woman in the work presented here has more in common with Chief Broom, the narrator of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, a native American inmate at a mental hospital in the Pacific Northwest, for whom events unfold through a thick, hallucinatory fog as he pushes his broom back and forth down the hospital's corridors. Though his view of things is distorted, still, for Kesey's novel about a belligerent individualist who fakes his way into the looney bin to avoid prison time Chief Broom is the perfect narrator, since he's been faking his own mental illness. Only after Kesey concocted Chief Broom (which event, we're told, occurred during one of the fledgling author's many drugged interludes), was he able to successfully write his novel.

Don't get out the peyote just yet. Unreliable narratives are rare and tricky birds, and should only be ventured into with the sure understanding that an unreliable narrative is intended, since the ultimate subject of an unreliable narrative is always the protagonist's unreliability. Otherwise, you run the risk of presenting readers not with an unreliable character, but with an unreliable author, for which there can be no excuse. If there's nothing wrong with Anna; if her bizarre, unbridled perceptions turn out to be nothing more than the writer flexing his or her descriptive muscles, being clever or cute for cuteness or cleverness sake, then this opening fails for making promises it has no intention to deliver on.

I suspect this author won't let us down; that these perceptions of Anna's are there for a good reason, to introduce us to the psyche of a woman on the verge of mental breakdown. I suspect, too, that as the story progresses her problems—along with her perceptions—will only get worse.


  1. Thanks for the post, Peter. It helped me see my work a bit better as I'm also writing in first person.

  2. Peter,
    I so appreciate your thoughtful reading of this piece. It is helpful, because while Anna is fairly cynical and depressed, I never intended for her to be thought of as mentally ill nor paranoid. Though, in truth, as the novel progresses I can see why she might indeed be so. This makes me think I may need to proceed in one of two ways, going forward with my edits. Either a.) that I may have to find a way to tone down the "creepiness" of her specific thoughts in this opening page, perhaps to make her appear more "normal." Or b.) that I may have created a character who is, in fact, even more phychologically scarred than I'd realized. That I've identified with her too closely to have noticed how beyond-the-norm her thought processes are.

    My main fear had been that it would be considered a rather boring first page because nothing really happens, from a plot standpoint. That it would be too expository. I'm glad to know that is not necessarily the case.

    Thank you again,