"This week’s exercise concerns the Unreliable Narrator, and it should be fun. Some of you already know what this means and some do not. An unreliable narrator is a first-person narrator who cannot entirely be trusted to be telling the whole truth. In real life, we are all unreliable narrators, and we understand this, and when we listen to someone tell us a 'true' story (why he got fired; why her parents are totally unreasonable; how his bike went missing; how her husband is the greatest guy in the world; why she doesn’t really care about getting published...), we listen in two ways, simultaneously: (1) we listen in good faith, willing to believe everything we’re being told, and (2) we listen skeptically, alert to nuances, improbabilities, echoes of contradictions. We all do this. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be able to function, socially or in any other way, because the fact is that we are all unreliable when it comes to assessing our own experiences. If we believed every story we heard, we’d make lots of dumb decisions. This is not to say that we can’t approach the truth when we tell stories—only that, being human, we often miss it, sometimes by a mile, sometimes by inches. We know this about ourselves, which means we know it about one another.
When I say 'unreliable narrator,' I’m not talking about a liar. I’m talking about someone who honestly believes the story she’s telling but who is, on some level, fooling herself. But not her listener. Not her reader.
It’s a show/tell contradiction, really. The unreliable narrator tells us one thing and shows us something quite different. For an interesting list of U.N. novels, see:
Exercise 4 will be—you guessed it—try your hand at unreliable narration.
1. Page limit: 3 pages, double-spaced.
2. First person (I) narration.
3. Essentially, this will be a monologue."
My Exercise 4:
It started out as a good day for a ride. I left the house before I could wake up to the rhythmic, lazy slap of my wife’s thighs as she walked from the master bedroom to the master bathroom to her closet to the main kitchen. Every morning, I heard Judy's thighs smacking each other as I lay awake in the guest bedroom and counted the stucco mounds on the ceiling and wished for unassailable silence. Lately, I was noticing all of the sounds surrounding me every morning: the aforementioned thigh slaps and the stupid espresso machine hissing and all of those clattering dishes and the children waking up late and slamming car doors with teenage finesse and backing out of the driveway too quickly. I wanted good, strong silence.
This year, my tolerance for loud things and loud people and loud sounds had disappeared. My head was hurting more and my knee was bothering me, even though I was no longer spending twelve hours a day on my feet. Ever since I stepped down, presumably because the company wanted to reward my service and I wanted to spend more time with my family and work on my golf game and pursue other, unexplored career paths, the pains were getting worse.
Once outside, the sun was a predatory thing, unblinking and unyielding. A nervous bird flew near the garage and pitched onto a nearby tree. I grabbed my bicycle out of the side yard. It was a Masi bicycle, blue and slightly crooked, but it was mine. I had seen a sign for a yard sale and stopped and bought the bike, even though I could have bought the yard itself and the accompanying house and the rest of the neighborhood. When I brought the bike home, Judy shuffled over and laughed that annoying laugh of hers and said that I was going through a mid-life crisis and why didn’t I buy a shiny Harley Davidson like Mike next door or look into a new car or even hair transplants? I threw her a ferocious look that spelled death, the kind that I usually save for a deserving employee, and she promptly shut her mouth. I felt pleased when this happened.
Ever since that day, I had been riding and riding and riding that bike around the neighborhood. I was pedaling furiously through pristine lawns and manicured flowerbeds, which brought me some sort of deep, untapped satisfaction. When I rode the bike, everything stopped somersaulting in my skull. I could only hear the wind; even then, it was a soft wind. I thought that I would start training for some type of race. I would become one of those hard-bodied men who wore spandex and weathered grins. I would spend hours at the gym and hire a trainer. My stomach would shrink and my shoulders would harden. I’d become one of those men who look good bald.
Riding the bike meant that I was getting exercise, which was supposed to be good for my condition. It meant that I was outside, breathing fresh air and stretching my limbs, not inside the house, watching the Tour de France in a muted reverie or scaling the walls all afternoon or fixing things that could be working more efficiently or sitting the Jacuzzi for hours with earplugs nestled firmly in my ears. Judy was afraid that I would fall asleep in there and wake up with wrinkles across my back like cobwebs.
Today I started riding the bike around the cul-de-sac, which sent me in a never-ending infinity loop. I counted the loops and lost track and started up again and lost track again until I noticed Mike standing the corner of his yard, watching my looping. Mike held up his hand but I ignored the gesture and concentrated on my riding. Lately, I could feel the whole neighborhood flashing me the same bright, false smiles. They were jealous of me; I knew they were jealous of me. I owned the biggest house in the neighborhood but I still held onto my aspirations while all of those neighbors had settled into their sad, noisy lives.
Mike continued staring at me, enviously, with a shovel in his fist. Unlike him, I would become a professional cyclist and inspire a whole generation of riders. I would ride aggressively, soundlessly, like a falcon skirting the sky. With each thought, I began a fresh, happy thought trail. I would wear a yellow jersey the color of cornbread. I would finish the Tour de France in Paris. I thought that I would buy a house in Toulouse or Marseille or Bourdeax. A house with thick, soundproof walls. I would never have to wake up in the guestroom again.