Roundtable on Unreliable Narrators

Cat Rambo
Dorothy Dunnett’s also an absolute master at giving you all the information while keeping you from connecting all the dots.

Marie Brennan
Oh, yes. An omniscient narrator who leaves clever little holes in the middle of what she’s telling you . . . .

Cecelia Holland
I love Dunnett, but a good deal of her mastery was spinning so many objects at once you lost track.

John Clute

The term “unreliable narrator” can only mean something it means something more or other than that all narrative forms are in some sense unreliable, whether or not the bullet of unreliability is bit in any one instance. I am myself mainly interested in the mode from around the time of Henry James (with a sidebar about the interestingness of any narration conducted within a Club Story frame, like Chaucer, etc etc; but that is another issue, a very complex one in the end). And I am vulgarly mainly interested in two forms of unreliable narration:

1) the narrator who, perhaps unconsciously (the nature of which itself being a problematic), exposes a problematic through her telling (as in “The Turn of the Screw”, which is of course a Club Story); and by exposing the problematic exposes to our wondering gaze the EPISTEMOLOGY PROBLEMATIC OF MODERNISM.

2) the narrator who is lying to us, like the doctor in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, or Severian, exposing to us (vulgarly) the underlying knowledge that all coherence (that is, any story at all) is by virtue of its coherence a lie.

Cecelia Holland
How do you see Heart of Darkness in this? Speaking of club stories.

John Clute
Myself, I spent a bit of time on Club Stories, including the Conrad, wrote a long entry in the SF Encyclopedia, at Club Stories, like Heart of Darkness, and The Time Machine for that matter, can work as intensifiers of the occasion of story. They expose the telling of the tale by a possibly unreliable narrator; but they also enforce witness of what is told. So as far as the unreliable narrator is concerned, the club story kind of works both ways: exposure of narrator; affirmation of the primal power of story, sort of thing.

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