The Essay Series #3: The Essayist as Unreliable Narrator
What is an unreliable narrator, how can you have one in an essay, and what does it achieve? When lies, exaggeration, or uncertainty can help us arrive at a deeper truth.
The is Part 3 of The Essay Series.
In a way, all essayists are unreliable narrators. As literary explorers, we often write about things we don’t yet fully understand. We rely on our memories, and memory is fallible—to what extent can it be trusted? We are dilettantes in service of the text. We take small bites from the buffet of human knowledge, sampling from the sciences, from history, or from the arts. We dabble. We dally. We tinker. We gather our little treasures up, like magpies drawn by the glint of metaphor. This is to be expected. But for the narrator in an essay to be seen as unreliable in the traditional literary sense, and for this to satisfy the reader, there needs to be something else going on.
Unreliable narrators can be found in nonfiction works by a wide array of writers, from Hunter S. Thompson to David Sedaris. But why would you ever want the speaker in your essay to be seen as “unreliable”? Aren’t you the speaker? Isn’t the job of an essayist to tell the truth as best they can? For an essayist to present themselves as an unreliable narrator, rather than just a liar, a bad storyteller, or someone who’s gotten it wrong, the twists of the telling must be made visible. The writer must be doing something intentional. There is an artfulness involved.
An essay is not usually what we think of when we talk about unreliable narrators in literature. In fiction, an unreliable narrator is someone whose credibility has been compromised. They might be telling a story about themselves, or about others, but you get the sense that their version of events is flawed.
The most famous example of an unreliable narrator in literature is probably Lolita’s Humbert Humbert. He tells us what happens, and the monstrous actions he takes—grooming his adolescent stepdaughter—but he does so in a way that absolves himself of fault. He tweaks. He omits. He manipulates. We can feel him doing it through his feigned astonishment and unctuous language. He doth protest too much. He seduces and lies to us in the same way he seduces and lies to Lolita. He tries to control the reader in the same way that he controls this young girl.
Plenty of personal essayists do this too, of course, but not on purpose. They do it from the perspective of Humbert, and for the same reasons—to paint themselves in a better light—not from the perspective of Nabokov. Even in less severe cases, when writing memoir and other personal narratives, there is only so much accuracy we can count on. We misremember. We judge others too harshly, or go too easy on ourselves. We lie to ourselves first and foremost in order to keep our sense of reality intact. We have told our own version of events so many times over the years that we believe it, even if it’s not quite true. The reason many writers choose to write about themselves in the first place is to solidify a particular narrative.
But that is not the kind of unreliable narrator I am talking about here. I’m talking about the writer who creates a self-adjacent persona in service of craft, or who allows for unreliability as a greater expression of the essay’s truth. They know they are being unreliable, and want the reader to know it too.
Not all unreliable narrators are liars, monsters, or people who want to be seen in a better light. In other words, not all of them are Humbert Humbert. An essayist can “lie” or exaggerate to be funny, to engage with magical realism, or for poetic effect. It can take many forms. There is the unreliable narrator as satirist, as naïf, as exaggerator or hyperbolist, as denialist, as rogue or Picaro figure, as madman, as comedian, as a person whose own memory is compromised, or as someone dealing with trauma.
Take, for example, the opening of this personal essay by Saeed Jones: