Wayne C. Booth is not a household name, but maybe he should be. A respected author, scholar, and distinguished professor of English at the University of Chicago, Booth's work focused on the art of rhetoric in fiction. As The New York Times summed up in its 2005 obituary of Booth: "[he] illuminated the means by which authors seduce, cajole and more than occasionally lie to their readers in the service of narrative."
His most lasting contribution to the study of rhetoric may be the term "unreliable narrator, " which he coined in his 1961 book The Rhetoric of Fiction (University of Chicago Press). The term quickly took hold as a way to describe a character who may not be credible or trusted, but who shapes how a story is told.
Unreliable narrators often add drama to a plot and tension to a story line. Does the narrator know the real story, or only parts of it? Does a narrator's upbringing, worldview, or mental health sway the narrative in untrustworthy ways? And how do we know exactly which characters are telling the truth? Whose story can we trust?
An unreliable narrator may be apparent early in a story. Think about Forrest Gump, the narrator whose worldview is so naive that we're not sure we can fully trust him at first. As the story unfolds, we see that while Gump's character may not discern complex truths, he's incapable of dishonesty. His narration simply needs a sort of modern-day translation, which we're only too happy to provide because of his sweet, innocent behavior. We go along happily for the ride once we understand how to perceive this character.
More often, the unreliable narrator suffers from a delusion that is self-inflicted (the alcoholic narrator Rachel in The Girl on the Train) or something more sinister (the villain Keyser Söze in The Usual Suspects). As a dramatic device, these unreliable narrators obfuscate, mislead, and string us along as a story unfolds. They're often revealed at the end of a thriller or mystery so we can enjoy an unexpected twist and a satisfying ending.
Then there are dense narratives filled with unreliable narrators whose purpose is to confuse us as much as possible, all of the time. Films like The Matrix or Memento or the television show Lost are good examples. These stories traffic in continual confusion, packaged as entertainment. There is often no real beginning, middle, or end to the story structure. As soon you think you've found a logical story line, it unravels before you. It's a nonstop rollercoaster of illogical logic.
Fast forward to America in 2017. It's a time in which unreliable narrators have spilled over from fiction into the reality of our everyday lives, a by-product of our post-truth culture. Americans are forced to ask themselves pretty much daily: Who is telling the truth and whose narrative can I trust? Can I trust the media? Our president? A friend's latest post on Facebook?
When unreliable narrators abound in real life, it's not entertaining and it's not a thrill ride. It's confusing and exhausting. There are no neat endings to wrap things up. Our rapid-fire technologies don't help. Social media masquerades as fact-based journalism. Artificial intelligence encroaches on our native human decision making. We've even invented a technology, "virtual reality," to create an alternate world that feels like our real one.
Sure, societies have wrestled with warring narratives and disruptive technologies since the beginning of time. But it seems especially treacherous now, doesn't it? Today, conflicting, continually changing "facts" form a sort of 24/7 entertainment that we can't look away from. These untested, untrusted narratives have previously been the bastion of fiction. But now...
A recent article in The Guardian, "The lying game: why unreliable TV narrators matter in the Trump era," showcases how unreliable narrators have made the leap from fiction to real life in unsettling ways. In this article, writer and director Joe Ahearne talks about the dangers of comparing carefully orchestrated fictional constructs to stories told by politicians in offhanded ways. "Great drama comes from when you have two irreconcilable viewpoints, then there’s a battle and somebody wins. But what’s happening now is that facts seem to be irrelevant. Reality is at stake,” he says.
Is it possible that unreliable narrators could help us both diagnosis and cure our cultural whirlpool of truthiness? Maybe it's time to turn back to Booth for answers. Through his lens, we can immerse ourselves in our favorite films, television shows, and novels and learn how unreliable narrators spin a tale to their advantage. If we pay attention, we can recognize how a narrator acts deceptively to pursue his goals, when a narrator is lying to himself, or when a narrator is unreliable through no fault of her own.
Then comes the hard part. We must take the time to apply this analysis to the rhetoric of Trump and the media to identify how we're being manipulated as consumers of competing narrative views. Because everyone is spinning stories; some with a disregard for context, others with a contempt for indisputable facts. If we can pinpoint the unreliable narrators in our midst, then we can decide for ourselves who is telling the truth. It's time-consuming work; it should be easier to find facts. But this is the era we live in. The truth is out there. It may just be up to us to find it.