I don’t usually reread books I’ve enjoyed. It reminds me of Thomas Wolfe’s extraordinary book title, “You Can’t Go Home Again.” Going back to a beloved book might mean discovering that you’ve changed and the book is no longer compelling. It might mean, it wasn’t that great to begin with, but you deluded yourself because you fell in love with a character—or worse, because it was popular at that time and you were swept away in the mood of the moment.
But sometimes, rereading a book can be a wonderful, enlightening and inspiring experience. Last summer I reread a few Agatha Christie novels and enjoyed her masterful plotting all over again. This summer, on an impulse while I was traveling, I downloaded Russell James “Painting in the Dark.” I read this when it was published in 2001 and recalled the wonderful deception he perpetrated on the reader.
I’m rereading it now—slowly and with great pleasure—as I note how the clever author reveals information while deceiving the reader with a variation on one of my favorite literary gambits—the unreliable narrator. All narrators are unreliable, just as all eyewitnesses are unreliable. It’s because we are human and have human flaws, and individual points-of-view. But an unreliable narrator has an agenda—the character doesn’t just color the story with a particular perspective, he or she manipulates it.
One of the principal characters is an elderly lady, once a well-known member of the British Union Party (the fascists). Her recollections about Hitler’s inner circle during the rise of the Nazi regime are wonderful and disingenuous at the same time. She keeps reminding the reader that she was not alone in her admiration for the Third Reich at the time. It’s masterful writing.
Poe is another author with a penchant for the unreliable narrator, but I’d like to propose that many of the “honest” voices in famous books are also unreliable. Doesn’t Nick Carraway’s infatuation with Daisy color his story about Jay Gatsby? Does it make his version of the events in ‘The Great Gatsby’ unreliable or just skewed? Do you have any thoughts on this to share?