“Find Me,” a new novel by Laura van den Berg, is presented in a deceptively simple, straightforward style. Written in present tense by its protagonist, a young woman named Joy, often relying on facts and lists, she first exposes her attitude about her involuntary quarantine in a hospital, following an epidemic, which first robs people of their memories, then their lives. She’s one of the few immune. But as the story unwinds, another, even more traumatic fact about her life appears. Abandoned as an infant, she’s lived in a series of foster homes, and the occurrences there left indelible marks that she accepts with equanimity. So we think. By the book’s end, we begin to question her view of reality and hopscotch back to previous scenes trying to dig out truth.
In writing this device is called an “unreliable narrator.” It appears in books as diverse as “Alice in Wonderland,” “One Flew Over the Cuckcoo’s Nest,” “Lolita,” and “The Life of Pi.” In fiction, as in life, the unreliable narrator is a person telling the story who can’t be trusted. Either from ignorance or self-interest, this narrator speaks with a bias, makes mistakes, or even lies.
Why is the unreliable narrator widespread? My guess is because that’s the way life is. Have you ever experienced an incident at which other people were present, then talked about it later, only to discover your view’s and theirs differ widely? Those much-applauded and quoted studies conducted by experts support the phenomenon. Witnesses can be sincere, and believe they’re telling the truth, and hold completely opposite views.
The truth is that we all are reliable to ourselves and unreliable to everyone else. I was called to serve on a jury recently, and nearly everyone questioned said he’d base his decisions on the facts. But studies show over and over that even eyewitnesses can see a situation completely differently. Look at the dozens of people freed over the past few decades when scientific evidence proves their innocence. We quite honestly can think we’re right. . .until this is shown to be wrong.
So in the end, the unreliable narrator may very well be reliable as to what he believes. Who’s to say Joy in “Find Me” isn’t headed to a reunion with her mother?
Spiritual faith abounds with this perspective. The “72 virgins in Heaven” concept of reward in Islam (although misinterpreted in our pop culture) could very well be true for Muslims who belive it. The Catholic Purgatory encompassing purification over time to redeem yourself from sin, the child who believes in the Tooth Fairy long past the age of baby teeth, the millions of women who place credence in a lover’s “I’ll be with you always. . . I’ll take care of you,’ the list is endless.
These are our own perceptions of reality, and to us they are real. Does this mean we’re all wrong? We shouldn’t trust our instincts, perceptions and thoughts? Bow to the supremacy of science? No, for what’s considered “science” seems to change almost as quickly as our emotions.
I think it means we shouldn’t rush to judgment the way we do. We should always be willing to look at different perspectives, honor others’ opinions, put ourselves in the other guy’s shoes. The universe is vast, our world holds quadrillions of fascinating objects and happenings, and differing realities (to some, illusions) are part of that.
“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” Albert Einstein