The Unreliable Narrator as a Satirical Device

The best lies are truth knocked off axis.

This summarizes my understanding of satire.

Heightened reality is plausible. It requires minimal disbelief suspension. As opposed to unreality: full sci-fi, full horror, religious prose.

I like working in a heightened reality. I enjoy warping the understood, confounding the presumed. I relish realistic reactions to bizarre scenarios. And of course, I trade in exaggeration.

The main device I use to develop this kind of fiction is the unreliable narrator. However normal the universe may actually be, the narrator’s perception is always a variable. I can understand how some readers may find it maddening if they suspect that the narrator is not disclosing things 100% “as they are” (whatever that means in terms of fiction). However, I find the device thrilling to read and to write.

As a reader, when I encounter a first-person or limited third-person that seems to be telling me things contrary to reason or even contradictory to what has come before, I find it exciting. Sure, in some cases it may be a result of sloppy editing. But when it’s not–when it’s obviously an intentional contrast to my expectations–I tend to find the resulting static fascinating. While some might be taken out of the moment, I usually find myself drawn further in, wondering where “the truth” lies (again, in terms of “the truth” within the fiction), questioning what has come before, reanalyzing, altering my speculation about where things are headed, and ultimately, wondering what’s wrong with the narrator .

I think it comes down to the reader’s tolerance of ambiguity. Can you, as a reader, tolerate not knowing the degree to which the narration mirrors what may actually be going on (in the fiction, and rule-of-three, I’m done with these disclaimers)? Even knowing it might never be tied up as neatly as an episode of Family Ties?

When Harland says the news reporters are cyborgs, does he mean it literally, or is it his perception due to their stoic nature? I’m happy with either interpretation, which is why that’s one of the many intentional ambiguities throughout Hyperbole. Harland is Harland because of his perception and his opinions. If you don’t embrace Harland, with all of his faults, you’ll probably never like the book. And I’m cool with that. It’s one of the sacrifices you make when you create non-mass-market stuff, I guess.

And the thing is: I don’t even have to know.

What I mean is, I’m not fully sure, even a year past finishing the thing, whether there are actually cyborgs in the universe of Hyperbole. I tend to think not, but who knows? And if I don’t know, then nobody knows. And I’m still cool with that.

Does that make you uncomfortable as a reader? Does it seems like a cop-out? Does it seem lazy? Again, any of those reactions would make sense to me, but I don’t feel them.

Two of my favorite TV series, The Sopranos and Lost, conclude with huge amounts of intentional ambiguity. To me, it makes them fun to think about and to revisit. It doesn’t spoil what came before. And to me, the ambiguity is part of the charm, part of the lasting appeal. If every thread were resolved–if we found out that “the Russian” and Eloise Hawking ended up running Cheers–that would feel cheap and hollow, wouldn’t it? Knowing too much–even in the end–can be as upsetting as not getting enough information. Neatly-tied bows can be as disappointing as an empty box.

One challenge when using this device is to balance the plausible with the absurd. If everything that the narrator says is batshit insane, would the story be readable? Probably not. So finding the moments to stretch the reality, or to twist perception of reality, is part of the art. What feels right? And what is the impetus for those lapses in perception? Sometimes the reason can be as simple as wanting a punchline, but it’s nice when it also extends the meaning or touches on the themes you’re exploring.

But sometimes a fart has to turn into a nuclear explosion. The word of the lord. Amen.

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