naomi_jay: (Objection)
[personal profile] naomi_jay
(I was going to make this a Writerly Wednesday thing, but I have guest blogs to post, so... I don't think it matters too much. Anyway).

So! I've been reading Carolyn Crane's Disillusionist books for the past couple of weeks. It's a trilogy; I won the first two from Bastard Books, and it's already up there with Stacia Kane's Downside Ghost books as series of the year for me. It's brilliant. Crane's writing is wonderful, the storyline and characters are fascinating, and I adore Justine, the narrator/heroine. She's a woman of principal with a moral compass she doesn't ignore, and it's a refreshing change from the typical UF heroine. Justine gets ahead, makes friends, and wins by trusting her instincts, being a good person, and doing what she feels is right, regardless of the personal cost. I really love that.

I finished book two, Double Cross, last night. I...wow, you guys. Wow. Crane does amazing plot twists - book one, Mind Games had me literally speechless once or twice as everything I thought I knew about the characters was flipped continuously. In Mind Games, we're set up with Packard - a former criminal mastermind who's manipulated Justine and others like her into disillusioning criminals (basically rebooting them to remove their criminal tendencies), whilst keeping these disillusionists convinced they'll become vegetables without Packard's help. We also have Otto Sanchez, police chief, who's using his own psychic powers to keep criminals (Packard amongst them) locked up in buildings around the city to keep them off the streets. I'm sure you won't be surprised to hear that Justine is attracted to both men, and likewise. Now, early in Mind Games, we're lead to believe Otto is a violent, dangerous sociopath. At the end, we discover he's not - that's just the lie Packard has fed his team to get them to help him bring Otto down. The two are old friends/sworn enemies. It's complicated.

Anyway. In Double Cross, Justine and Otto are dating. Crane hints at problems in paradise - Justine idolises Otto, who's presented as noble, if demanding. She's still attracted to Packard, but he's continuously lied to her and she doesn't trust him. There's a sense that maybe, maybe Justine's relationship with Otto will fail, but more because he can't trust her than anything else. She keeps one or two vital pieces of information from him that places their relationship in jeopardy.

At the end of the book, Justine decides, actually, she loves Packard and is preparing to effectively elope with him. When Otto realises this, he shoots a friend of Justine's, then has her memory altered so she thinks Packard is responsible.

Okay. This threw me for such a loop I kept expecting it to be a dream sequence or something. As I've said, Crane hints throughout Double Cross that Justine and Otto are heading for a break-up, but despite Otto's criminal past, he's presented throughout both books as a good guy. A guy who will make tough decisions for the benefit of everyone. A guy with noble goals, a guy who wants to right wrongs and keep people safe. A guy who has fought to overcome his past and redeem himself.

Packard is presented as a man who will lie and lie and lie again, on the other hand. His primary concern in these books so far as been seen to be his own freedom. Yes, he loves Justine, but that hasn't stopped him manipulating her, lying to her, and undermining her decisions.

So this plot twist, where Otto is suddenly prepared to murder an innocent man, frame another innocent man for it, and wipe Justine's mind to turn her against Packard and keep her with Otto himself...It threw into question Justine's reliability as a narrator for me.

The unreliable narrator is one who's credibility has been compromised. My favourite example is Nelly in Wuthering Heights, who's memory of the events of the novel is compromised by her closeness to those events and her feelings for the people involved. You can also look at Humbert Humbert of Lolita, who tells the story in a way that would justify his behaviour, or The Wife in Chaucer's The Wife of Bath, who fills her story with mis-quotes and inaccuracies. An unreliable narrator can serve a few purposes, but generally it is to cast doubt on the story and make the reader rethink their interpretation.

There are a couple of points in Mind Games and Double Cross that indicate we can't entirely trust Justine's perception; a conversation between her and Packard where he says she projects her own good qualities onto Otto, and a scene where she fakes an orgasm with Otto because something he says during sex disturbs her. I think these are also meant to be the foreshadowed clues that her relationship with him will ultimately fail. I classify them as "unreliable narrator moments" because Justine never gives the reader any reason to look further at these incidents. Packard is manipulative, so we expect him to say what he has to to get what he wants; and I'm sure we've all faked an orgasm here or there, so...

Accepting Justine as an unreliable narrator causes two problems for me: firstly it means I have to question every decision she's made up until this point. Her judgements (which are usually proven correct) as to people's natures, her altruistic personality, her desire to better herself and live normally...All those things are now up in the air, because she has clearly been so wrong about Otto. And her being right about Otto as a good guy is the plot point upon which Mind Game hinges entirely. If she'd been wrong about him in Mind Games, Double Cross couldn't happen, basically.

The second problem is that Justine's unreliable narration means we are asked to ignore Packard's bad behaviour. I love a good redemption story, but is that what we have with Packard? His lies to Jusine and the other disillusionists continue long after he could have stopped, because telling the truth would compromise his own personal goal: his own freedom. If Justine is an unreliable narrator and Otto is a villain despite Crane's depiction of him as a good guy, then Packard is a good guy despite Crane's depiction of him as a villain. (Well, maybe villain is too strong a word, but he definitely occupies some morally grey territory).

Are you with me still?

Okay. There's mitigating circumstances that may help us. Justine is a hypochondriac. She lives in fear of dropping dead at a moment's notice from a vascular condition called vein star syndrome (coincidentally this is a fear Otto shares), and this fear that allows Packard to manipulate her in the first place. Now, a woman who can convince herself despite numerous medical tests that she's about to drop dead is likely a woman who can convince herself of anything - including the Otto good/Packard bad motif. So we can reasonably treat Justine as an unreliable narrator from page one, when she tells the reader with heavy conviction that her death is mere seconds away, and always will be.

Crane does an amazing job of writing Justine's hypochondria - there's never a flicker of doubt for Justine that she's at risk and even once her hypochondria is under control, she remains obsessed with disease, injury, and infection. This is a fascinating exercise for the reader in deciding how far we can trust Justine's perceptions, and ultimately I think we have to take them with a pinch of salt.

That doesn't lessen my dropped-jaw reaction to Otto. Has Justine really underestimated him so badly? Are there clues I missed or willfully overlooked? This is the problem of an unreliable narrator - we just can't be sure. If anyone else has read these books, I'd love to know what you think.

on 2011-12-05 05:16 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] katherineokelly.livejournal.com
A Raziel/Phoenix crossover icon? Be still, my heart!

on 2011-12-05 06:39 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] naomi-jay.livejournal.com
:) I'm a big Soul Reaver fangirl, but only passingly familiar with Phoenix.

on 2011-12-05 11:05 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] spiderling.livejournal.com
That sounds like a good series!

I would be interested to write an unreliable narrator but I wouldn't even know where to begin. I am a horribly honest person in real life so that might make it hard. I don't know.

But I do think everyone is unreliable. We all filter reality in numerous ways starting with our 5 senses and ending with our brain. But to somehow convey that on the page without it being cheesy melodrama or have a smirking narrator say at the end of the book 'ha ha, I lied' I have no idea.

on 2011-12-06 11:27 am (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] naomi-jay.livejournal.com
That's true - every narrator is filtering through their own perceptions and prejudices, so we can only take their word so far!

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