Lit Counts: The Unreliable Narrator is Someone I Can Really Rely On

By Michael Henry

A few months ago I got hooked on the novel Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash. In it, a loner young man goes through a few years of college where his only focus—his monomania, if you will—is to win wrestling nationals. He narrates his everyday happenings in such fine detail, I couldn’t look away. Or put the book down. His life is all-consumed by wrestling: winning at wrestling; settling scores through wrestling; making a friend (just one) through wrestling; making weight for wrestling. He isn’t very self-aware. In his monomania, he opens a distance between his desire and how we, the reader, understand him, which is to say: we might feel we know him better than he does. And in this, he’s a fascinating character.

Many of my favorite books and poems have unreliable narrators as main character. Holden Caulfield comes to mind. And Scout Finch to some degree. And some of my favorite Saul Bellow heroes. In poetry, there’s Robert Frost’s speaker in “Birches,” and the line that breaks my heart—when the speaker interrupts his casual observations about birch trees with a sudden confession: “I’d like to get away from earth awhile.” And the overt authorial intrusion in Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” whose final line has perhaps the best parenthetical in the English language: “Though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.”

Other poems come to mind: “My Last Duchess,” by Robert Browning, “We Real Cool,” by Gwendolyn Brooks, “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” by T.S. Eliot, “Halley’s Comet,” by Stanley Kunitz. There are many more.

Why do I love these speakers so much? Perhaps I feel that these moments of stark realization are glimpses into the most important moments of our lives, moments where the truth of who we are shines though, whether were ready for that truth or not. And I’m enthralled when literature works this magic, creating these personas who are trying so damn hard to not let the truth come to light. And yet it eventually shines through.

That these moments of confession are a part of the therapeutic process is also part of why I like them so much. They capture the threshold moment when wisdom comes to the speaker—the moment one says something without realizing what he or she is actually saying. I love unreliable narrators because they show me how to be aware of deeper truths when I, in my own writing, stumble upon them. In those moments, the truth is given to me. Even if I’ve been writing circles around it for years, the truth eventually makes its presence known.Like me, these characters have constructed a world view that has served them well for awhile, but the work is exhausting, and the forces of sanity and truth are marshalling themselves against these false narratives in a way the character will eventually be unable to avoid.

Yes, I’ve been thinking about false narratives quite a bit lately.

I find these moments, portrayed in the speech of a character, quite moving for personal reasons as well. It reminds me of my own attempts to run away from false narratives about who I am, or was, and how those story-edifices eventually came crashing down. Therefore I feel bonded to these speakers. We’re just people. And what is literature is not an attempt to understand the human condition? That we are all flawed. That we’re runaways, hoping to get far away from the secrets in our hearts and the inevitability of loss and mortality. And yet we never get very far, because we are all bound by time, by loss. And joy, too. I believe such struggles are the heart of all creativity. We write, we paint, we sing, we dance in order to express our emotions, confusions, and anger, over that which we cannot escape.

Which is all to say: When we read and when we write, we discover over and over the most basic lesson. We're human. Just like everybody else.

Editor's Note: Lit Counts is an essay series in which readers and writers from our community express why they believe in supporting and elevating literary arts—the mission of Lighthouse Writers Workshop. The series will countdown toward Colorado Gives Day on December 4, the annual statewide fund drive for nonprofits. For 2018, Lighthouse has set a goal of $90,000, to support the continued growth of our literary programs. If you believe in the mission of Lighthouse, consider scheduling your contribution today.

Michael Henry, along with Andrea Dupree, co-founded Lighthouse in 1997. He currently serves as Executive Director.