Yesterday, we read through chapters Seven and Eight of Blood Oranges, found THE END, and so finished with that stage of the editing process. About a thousand errors were marked. No, I'm not exaggerating. Plus my editor's corrections, of course. Today, I'm going to try to write a strange, short epilogue sort of thing for it, and begin something new for Sirenia Digest #77. Which I'm doing my damnedest to have out to subscribers by the 10th.
If only this cold spring would end. If only we'd have a day in the eighties Fahrenheit. Four or five of them in a row.
So, this is interesting. Yesterday morning, trying to wake up, I was reading a fairly intelligent and articulate discussion of The Red Tree online. I won't say where. But, for the most part, I was pleasantly surprised that I found myself actually looking at the novel in new ways (novel ways, hahahahah), finding perspectives I'd not previously considered. That's always cool. But then – okay, I'm going to have to quote this, and if the author of the following comment is offended, so be it; if you comment on my work online, please assume I will read it and may publicly respond:
Secondly, the book [The Red Tree] for me illustrates one potential pitfall of narrators this unreliable; the reader must trust that the writer has absolute control of the narrative and that any mistakes and inconsistencies in the narrative are deliberate. I trust Gene Wolfe to have that absolute control; if Severian or the narrator of Peace contradict themselves, I know damn well that they're really contradicting themselves and Wolfe didn't simply make an unintentional error. But I'm not sure whether I can assume the same of Kiernan which makes piecing things together more difficult. Is this error intentional? Is it a clue? Did Kiernan just screw up? I'm not as sure as with Wolfe.
1) Why does the this reader trust Gene Wolfe, in particular, with unreliable narrators more than he or she is willing to trust me? (I love Gene Wolfe, by the way, and I mean no slight to him.) Why the differential?
2) Are there actually readers who do not understand that certain information is unknowable, that it is ultimately inaccessible to them? That is to say, if I (or Gene Wolfe) "make an unintentional error" or drop "a clue" or "screw up," how can they possibly ever know? They could ask me (or Gene), obviously. But I might lie, right? And how would she or he ever know I wasn't lying? They couldn't. Period.
3) The Red Tree is not a mystery novel. Not in the genre mystery, Agatha Christie sense that there's a solution to be uncovered. There is at least one central mystery. But there is no solution, and the sharp reader knows that going in. To do otherwise is to adopt an a priori assumption. In this novel, as in most of my writing, the inexplicable is meant to remain forever inexplicable. Hence, there can be no "clues," excepting those that might sway a reader to one or another interpretation (and any number of interpretations of the text are equally valid).
That said, coming back to the matter at hand, at no point – in any of my work – am I intentionally withholding information from the reader. I don't do that. In the case of The Red Tree, the reader has access to pretty much the same information that I do. There are secrets I keep by never telling myself the answers. At least not consciously. Sounds fucking bizarre, I know, but it's true. You can trust me on this or not. I don't really care.
But later, the author of the above comment adds, "It does seem like Kiernan may be palming her cards a little here. Having CH [Constance Hopkins] refuse to comment in any way on what did or did not happen is cheating a bit." No. If I'm not trying to hide something from you, if there's not even an ultimate answer I know and so could hide, then I can't very well cheat. You're not watching a stage magician, and "palming her cards" is a pretty inaccurate metaphor.
4) I would say that there are multiple reasons that I employ "unreliable" narrators. For example, I might say that I want to examine the nature of insanity, and how could so unbalanced a mind as Sarah Crowe's or Imp's ever be "trusted" to relay the facts (not to be confused with "truth"), assuming either of them even know them? Except, on reflection, I see that's not what I'm doing at all. Because. There is, in the end, no such creature as the truly reliable narrator. Reliability – the conveyance of a factual narrative – may be assumed to occur to varying degrees. The narrators of Moby Dick or Heart of Darkness (two of my favorite novels, as it happens) may well be believed by the reader to be doing their best to tell the events of their stories as they actually occurred. But even the best intentioned, most mentally stable narrators forget shit. Or misremember.
Don't believe me? Here's an experiment. No test tubes required. Just try to write down an accurate narrative of any given day, a few hours of any given day, and it can even be one on which something momentous (good or bad) occurred. An important day. You'll likely recall the broad strokes. But specifics of conversations? No. And you may, depending on circumstance and your temporal distance from the day, have to cope with the fact that we all experience false memories. Psychology has shot the myth of the reliable narrator all to hell and back.
I could go on and on about this. I could, if my jangling mind would permit, write a monograph on this very problem in literature. Suffice to say, unless you gravely misapprehend my intent and the nature of narratives, I trust you will not make the same mistakes as the author of the above commentary. I have nothing to hide from my readers. I make no attempt to hide that nothing. If I did, I sure as hell wouldn't admit that both the novels discussed here are, to greater and lesser degrees, autobiographical. And yes, the bit about me keeping secrets from myself still stands, even when issues of autobiography arise. There are vast stretches of my psyche that are hidden from my view (as is the case with us all).
Platypus says, "Shut up already. You slept late. You haven't brushed your teeth. Or done your exercises, and there are miles to go before you sleep, beast." So, yeah. Time to make the doughnuts.
Nothing Up My Sleeves,