The Unreliable Narrator

I was sitting in my chair, trying to figure out what to write for this week’s blog, staring blankly in the general direction of my stack of books (because my bookshelves are full – again), and my eyeballs focused on them without warning. I was somewhat surprised to notice that I’ve been reading a ton of biographies and memoirs lately. I’m not sure why that’s happening. Maybe it’s because I’ve been given a lot of books as gifts recently, or because I haven’t been around very many people, or just because my brain needed a break from fiction. That does happen from time to time, but usually I tend to swing toward weird history books or books about language or psychology, and I’ll read one or two and then dive straight back into the warm, comforting waters of scifi and fantasy. The nonfiction kick has happened before, but it always had some other accompanying obsession, you know? The books were a symptom of a bigger phase: the Beats, mental hospitals, heroin, punk rock, Buddhist monks, serial killers, teratology, 19th century circuses.

Hmm. There’s a weird pattern there. I don’t really want to examine that.

Moving on.

This biography thing is odd. And so sudden. Here’s my question: why are other people so interesting? I mean, I understand that people with interesting stories to tell should get book deals. That’s not what I’m saying. No, what I’m asking about is our fascination, as readers, with other people’s lives. Is it just voyeurism? Could it be that simple? Or, the more interesting possibility: do we turn real people into characters? Do we separate ourselves from them, through reading their stories, enough to convince ourselves that they’re not real, at least until the book is over? Do we make them seem like fiction, somehow, by tricking our brains with books?

It’s not just books, though. This is the same thing I wonder about reality television shows (which I firmly believe are the used band-aids of Satan and will destroy us as a culture). Obviously those shows are heavily edited and the people on them are poked and prodded by producers constantly. Which results in them becoming caricatures of themselves, right? The things that make them interesting aren’t the majority of the things that make them up as people, or even of the things that make up their day. No one’s going to read a biography about a normal guy doing normal stuff. But if you take out all the normal bits and stack all the weirdnesses on top of each other in a big 22-minute freakshow or 200-page pile, it becomes fascinating, doesn’t it?

Maybe it’s just me. This kind of over-analytical thinking may not be a problem that other people have. Could be I’m just wired in a strange way. Often I’m blind to my own quirkiness and assume that the things I do all the time are standard operating procedure for other humans. Like eating my cereal with a fork or insisting that there will always be a right and left sock in every pair. I swear, there’s logic there, even if it’s hard to explain. So when I tell you this stuff what I don’t want you to hear is that I have a hard time separating fact from fiction, real folks from characters. And I certainly don’t want you to jump to some extreme conclusion like “she’s delusional.” I’m not. I’ve been through all the appropriate tests.

When I was a kid we traveled a lot. Like, a lot. And I was a little twitchy, being precocious and bored, so my dad used to calm me down by having me tell him stories. Eventually it turned into a game, one only I could win. In the airport or the train station: “What about that lady in the red coat?” In the bar or a restaurant: “What’s the deal with that couple over there?” Sometimes it was more specific: “That guy in the hat is a spy, right?” And sometimes it was nothing at all: “What do you think the wind does when it’s not here?” So, to me, everyone’s a character, every moment is story fodder, a scene waiting for someone to notice it. It’s just operant conditioning. Edward Hopper, the artist, once said that he only painted lonely people. But you can’t assume that they were all lonely all the time. It was just that moment. One he took advantage of.

As I grew up and decided I wanted to write, I became a compulsive people-watcher and eavesdropper. I’d hang out in coffee shops and go eat dinner by myself just to write stories about the conversations I’d hear and the people I saw. This has also given me a hypersensitivity to detail. I call it “the cop eye.” You can tell so much about a person without ever having to hear them speak. Left- or right-handedness, type of shoes, what they keep on the table versus what they keep in their pocket or bag, the book they’re reading, mannerisms, tattoos, tics – all of these tell you something about that person, something beyond the thing itself. All that stuff? That’s story stuff.

I sometimes think about what future archaeologists will make of our history, of our stories. Who will be our primitive gods? Oprah? Bill Gates? Hitler? Queen Elizabeth? But right now they’re just people. And so is the lady in the red coat. Maybe that’s why I’ve been reading so many biographies. To get at those odd pieces of seemingly normal people. To dig them out. To see what makes them interesting. I’m sure this phase will be over soon. It doesn’t make for good blog writing. Although a few of them might be up your nerd alley. Some recommendations:

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened – Jenny Lawson (she’s my blogging hero)
Nerd Do Well – Simon Pegg (because he’s a true fanboy, and freakin’ adorable)
Just a Geek – Wil Wheaton (actor-turned-writer-turned actor again)
Magical Thinking – Augusten Burroughs (also check out Running With Scissors for utter familial madness)
Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim – David Sedaris (always hilarious)
The Age of Wonder – Richard Holmes (not really a biography, but has lengthy biographical bits about lots of amazing 17th century scientists who are way more interesting than you’d think they would be)

Check them out. Let me know what you think. And sorry this post is kind of rambly and crazypants and all over the place. I’m still not operating at 100%. But I’m not delusional! I swear. And I promise that none of you will end up in a story without your express permission. Probably. The odds are in your favor.

6 thoughts on “The Unreliable Narrator

  1. I’ll second everything on that list except Augusten Burroughs. Some ol’ bullshit, if’n you ask me. Some ol’ bullshit even if’n you don’t ask me.

    1. Even if it is bullshit, I like him. I’ve actually never read his fiction (just the one novel, I believe?), but his “memoir” stuff is pretty funny. Not David Sedaris funny, but solid. Also, I’m genuinely surprised that you agree with me on most of these. I was awaiting your condemnation and it didn’t happen. Awesome.

      1. I had to read his pile of dreck for a class on creative nonfiction. Unfortunately for him, Running With Scissors directly followed Jo Ann Beard’s masterful Boys of My Youth. Beard, at multiple points, writes pieces in which little happens externally, but are still the most emotionally resonant texts you’ll ever read. Or that Sedaris piece that closes Naked. Burroughs’ story of growing up in a weird family, by contrast, is dead weight. It’s entertaining b/c the situations he’s describing are insane, but there’s nothing about the writing itself that’s worth a damn.

  2. So I have to say you missed a couple of golden opportunities here like when you said ” I’ve been through all the appropriate tests” you totally could have been like “My mother had me tested.” Of course this blog isn’t about the BBT but still. Also That last bit could totally have been “May the odds ever be in your favor.” But then again you didn’t mention the hunger games once either. Anyways I just wanted to comment to show that I read your bloggy goodness every Thursday and to thank you for being you.

    1. I ALMOST said “My mother had me tested” but after the one I posted a couple of weeks ago, I figured that was enough BBT references for a little bit. So glad you read every week! That makes me super happy. Hugs! And you’re welcome.

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