Truth is Relative to the Experience of the Storyteller: Unreliable Narration in Postmodern Literature
As societal and cultural sentiment shifted away from the certainty of the modern era into the relativism of the postmodern period, both the content and techniques of fiction adapted to address and reflect the new ideas. James Baldwin’s admittedly unreliable narrator in his 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room, Philip Roth’s combination of first and third person narration in his 1979 novel The Ghost Writer, and Andrea Levy’s two first person narrators in her 1996 novel Never Far From Nowhere underscore the idea that truth is relative to the experience of the storyteller. In all three novels, the themes and the narrative literary devices are distinctively postmodern, and are best understood as being intrinsically linked.
While the postmodern movement is too complex to be neatly defined or categorized, the notion of relativism is a useful lens by which many of the other aspects of postmodernism can be viewed. In his overview of postmodernism for Theology Today, Tyron Inbody asserts that postmodernism must first be understood in contrast to modernism, which “sought the rational control of data, single meanings, universal claims for truth, [and] objective interpretation” (525-526), and that relativism is at the center of that contrast (534). The upheaval of World War II revealed that “the tenets of modernity were never fully accepted . . . there is a new acceptance of the irregular or chaotic,” and in rejecting the modernists’ idea of conformity and universal truth, society moved forward to a “postmodern emphasis upon difference, particularity, and irregularity” (Elkind). Postmodern relativism became the lens through which authors tackled issues of sexuality, religion, and race.
Whether enthusiastically embraced or stubbornly resisted, the idea that there was more than one side to every story — and possibly more than one version of the truth — was a prevailing mentality of the postmodern era. Post-war society was forced to grapple with less-than-universal truth, and literature both reflected and influenced this tension. As history marched forward into ill-defined military conflicts and the refusal to accept human rights violations as the status quo, postmodern novelists offered fiction that reflected “the acceptance of the challenge that other religious options present to Judeo-Christian tradition, a sense of displacement of the white, Western male and the rise of those dispossessed because of gender, race, or class” (Inbody 528). In so doing, these authors not only allowed their narrators to speak multiple truths, they encouraged postmodern society to both accept and express individual experience as valid, not in spite of its varied forms, but because of them. Fiction reflected this “fragmentary and particular nature of all understanding” (Inbody 532). With readers ready to accept more than one perspective on any given story, authors were free to experiment with unreliable and multi-faceted narrators.
The rejection of dogmatism as part of the postmodern mentality opens the possibility to an unreliable narrator. Authors have a variety of techniques at their disposal to create an unreliable narrator that best moves their narrative forward. Readers no longer assume that the narrator of any given story is going to speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. In a focused analysis of the unreliable narrator in postmodern literature, Bruno Zerwick explains that the historical and cultural events and the inherent debate of those events surrounding a story’s setting become “paratextual elements” (155) that lend to an unreliability of narration. The author can also utilize “conflicts between story and discourse, discrepancies between the narrator’s presentation of events and his or her commentary on these events . . . and the narrator’s explicit or implicit disclosure of his or her own unreliability” (155). In postmodern fiction, it is not only reasonable but advisable for the reader to read between the lines of the narrative and question the motives and veracity of the narrator.
Baldwin allows the protagonist of Giovanni’s Room, David, to narrate the story in first person as he explored changing views on sexuality in postmodern times. The entire narrative, then, is only one perspective, and in the opening pages of the book, David describes himself as “too various to be trusted” (5). Baldwin has given the reader an example of Zerwick’s explicit disclosure of unreliability. David is coming to terms with his sexuality in a historical and societal context in which homosexuality is still illegal in his native United States, and tolerated, though not embraced, in Paris. Society at large, even in this postmodern era, cannot seem to make up its mind whether or not to accept homosexuality; no wonder, then, that David’s entire view of himself and his life is uncertain.
Baldwin has David couch his recollections with qualifying phrases, such as “I wonder”, “I suppose”, and “perhaps this was why” (5). The story opens with David making an attempt to start at the beginning, but he struggles to do so, explaining that, “when one begins to search for the crucial, the definitive moment . . . one finds one-self pressing, in great pain, through a maze of false signals . . . My flight may, indeed, have begun that summer — which does not tell me where to find the germ of the dilemma . . . ” (10). Baldwin makes it clear that David is capable of saying one thing and meaning another, speaking highly of a person while thinking, “he’s far from being a nice guy”; his own duplicitous behavior prompting him to feel a “strange tightening in my chest and wonder(ed) at the sound of my voice” (37). The reader understands that David does not claim to have a firm and infallible understanding of his own actions; therefore, there is room to disagree with David’s account of his own life, and even more margin of error for David’s understanding and representation of others’ thoughts and actions.
Baldwin goes a step further into postmodernism’s new understanding of truth, the idea of. “the power of the imagination to construct a world linguistically”, a relativism that in the extreme, means that “there is no other reality than the reality the mind constructs through language” (Inbody 533). Jacques, trying to convince the younger David to pursue a relationship with Giovanni, advises him “with vehemence, [to] ‘love him and let him love you . . . if you think of them as dirty, then they will be dirty . . . but you can make your time together anything but dirty . . . ” (Baldwin 57). In the postmodern world, it is possible to construct a personal truth that may or may not coincide with the prevailing societal mores. By the end of the story, David confesses to Hella, “I was lying to myself” (163). It is reasonable, then, for the reader to question David’s account of the story. Baldwin opens and closes the novel with reminders that the narrator is capable of being not only “various”, but deceitful, justifying his actions to those around him and creating a convenient truth for himself.
Roth’s The Ghost Writer narrator and protagonist, Nathan, seizes upon this idea of constructing a reality, as Roth weaves together Nathan’s first-person narrative with a third-person narrative of Amy, the supposed erstwhile Anne Frank. Nathan is thoroughly postmodern, and despite his traditional Jewish upbringing, has arrived at a “postmodern theology [which] is much more aware of our inevitable contextualization and pluralism” (Inbody 530). Roth’s plot and theme hinge on this clash of modern and postmodern attitudes toward religion, as Nathan explains that he and his father “had been having serious trouble in the family because of a new story” (10). Nathan’s father is “bewildered” regarding Nathan’s story, prompting him to meddle in his son’s work, which in turn prompted Nathan to go “off and away seeking patriarchal validation elsewhere” (10). In his attempt to reconcile his more relativistic view of truth and morality with a lingering desire to please his devoutly Jewish family and community, he concocts a fantastical back story for an acquaintance, casting her as a secretly survived Anne Frank. In presenting these two narratives, Roth allows Nathan to demonstrate the “postmodern thought [which] approaches reality not as an object of thought, but as it can be transformed” (Inbody 531). Nathan, overhearing Amy and Lonoff, wishes desperately that he could “invent as presumptuously as real life” (Roth 121). On the next page, Roth abruptly shifts into the third person narrative of the story of a still-living Anne Frank, who “after the war . . . had become Amy Bellette (125). Roth crafts the third person narrative as emphatically as the first-person narrative, allowing the reader to briefly imagine embracing Nathan’s fiction as potentially true, at least until the narrative shifts back to his first-person account, returning the reader to Lonoff’s farmhouse and Nathan’s confession that he “was continually drawn back into the fiction [he] had evolved about her” (157).
In contrast with the more straightforward narrative of previous literary movements, Roth alternates between Nathan as narrator and Nathan as fiction writer, giving the reader two distinct narratives to follow. Further, through the use of dialogue, the reader is given a brief third narrative, that of Nathan’s father. Instead of having Nathan recount or recollect his conversation with his father, Roth allows the reader to hear the elder Mr. Zuckerman’s own version of truth, revealing, well into the story, the root of the disagreement as the father tells his version of Nathan’s troublesome story. This juxtaposition of three distinct story lines, one of which is entirely fantastical, is a good example of Isabell Klaiber’s description of postmodern narratives as “considerably incoherent in terms of unstable identities and self-reflexive metafiction” (143). While Roth’s multiple narrators reflect Klaiber’s explanation that “the evocation of more than one implied author . . . may . . . occur in narratives written by a single author” (145), much of her article examines books and other media which are single narratives written by multiple authors. While the literary merits of the multiple authors remain a subject of debate, this liberty with narrative voices underscores the postmodern mentality that there can be many perspectives on a single topic.
Like Roth, Levy also utilizes multiple narrators to give vastly different perspectives on her postmodern examination of race in Never Far From Nowhere. Levy’s multiple narrators allow “multiperspectival accounts of the story that cannot be synthesized”, and offer a form of unreliability which forces “an awareness of the cultural dependency of narrative unreliability” (Zerweck 155, 158). The two sisters are recounting their truth based on their experience, creating two distinctly different narratives because of the marked difference in their skin color. Levy alternates chapters between narrators, and allows both the dark-skinned Olive and the fairer-skinned Vivien to recount their version of the narrative in the first person.
Each of Levy’s narrators is unreliable to a point, but most unreliable when they try to insert their own experience into their sister’s narrative. At the conclusion of the story, Vivien confronts Olive, yelling, “what’s the matter with you — grow up will you, just grow up” (365). Olive responds, “you’ve never had it hard like me” (367). The reader knows, from the benefit of having read their separate accounts, that there is both truth and falsehood in each of their arguments. Their experiences are different because of the cultural reality of society treating them differently. However, the differences between Olive and Vivien’s experiences pale in comparison with descriptions of the white male experience. Levy was part of the growing movement in which “women, ethnic minorities, and other groups long ignored . . . have begun to raise their own voices expressing a different experience and perception of the world” (Inbody 529). Levy’s use of the two distinctive first-person voices makes this point more emphatically than a traditional third person narrator telling both stories, and reflects a growing postmodern understanding of the importance of allowing individuals to speak for themselves.
The development of unreliable and multiple narratives used as a literary device, and combined with themes of societal change in perspectives on sexuality, religion, and race, connects postmodern fiction with the postmodern society. Fiction works now “often depict the narrator’s problematic versions of what has happened in the fictional reality” (Zerweck 162). Few would disagree that postmodern literature is a reflection of a postmodern culture which has experienced a “radical sociocultural upheaval” and a “rearrangement of the values and norms” of previous generations (Inbody 527). However, there are mixed reactions on the implications of this idea of relativism and plurality of narrative, as it exists in both literature and culture.
Inbody, from a theological perspective, cautions that postmodern thinking could lead to “relativism, skepticism, cynicism, or even nihilism” (534), possibilities which many secular, and even some spiritual postmoderns would not consider inherently negative. But David Elkind’s thoughts on postmodern philosophy, in the context of analyzing the postmodern influence on education, finds positive implications for the classroom in which “postmodernity stresses difference as much as progress, particularity as opposed to universality, and irregularity in contrast with regularity”. Just as Baldwin, Roth, and Levy presented their explorations of sexuality, religion, and race from multiple perspectives between the covers of single volumes, the postmodern classroom — and the literature available to teachers and curriculum designers — can now acknowledge and even celebrate diversity and uniqueness within the classroom. Each student can be recognized for their own truth, their own narrative.
In the postmodern tradition of novelists Baldwin, Roth, and Levy, a thriving segment of the publishing world, the Young Adult novel, is continuing to embrace this plurality of narrators. In her dissertation on the topic, Melanie Koss points out that “young adult novels mirror the changing nature of society” (12). The literary devices used in these novels seems to be changing as well. Koss observed a trend in novels “expanding beyond the typical first-person point of view, teenage narrator, narrative structure (9). In fact, she discovered that “almost one quarter of the books in the sample . . . were written either with multiple voices or multiple narrators taking turns telling the story and thus providing multiple points of view” (10).
In literature, and in life, postmodern philosophy demands that society accept a plurality of narrators. The idea of one universal truth has given way to an understanding and recognition of the validity of individual experience. James Baldwin offered readers an uncertain narrator for uncertain times. Philip Roth and Andrea Levy crafted their stories with a variety of narrators and perspectives, and their works offer readers an excellent broad overview of the possibilities of multiple voices speaking to the same topic, not only as a literary device, but as a commentary on society and culture. The implications for a body of literature that embraces multiple perspectives are far-reaching and promising.
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