Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
I love unreliable narrators—my thesis project has multiple narrators, and all of them are unreliable to some extent—but figuring out how to present them can be really tricky. And since I’m writing in first person, what I really mean is that I have to figure out how these narrators present themselves. How do they justify the lies they tell or the actions they’ve taken? Do they believe their own lies, or even realize that they’re lying? How do I know if I’ve crossed the line into mustache-twiddling?
We’ve all heard that every villain is the hero of their own story, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that the villain sees themself as heroic. Your villain—your unreliable narrator, in this case, even though not all unreliable narrators are villainous—may admit that they’ve fucked up but place the blame elsewhere, or they may avoid telling us about their fuckups entirely.
R. O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries was the first book I read this year, and it was amazing for figuring out how to create an unreliable narrator. Kwon’s bestselling novel is about a lot of things, including the loss of faith, the draw of religious fanaticism, and the ways that relationships form and then fracture. All of these themes emerge from the shifting narration of Will Kendall, a working-class student attending a private college. Along with telling his own story, Will relays the stories of Phoebe Lin, his ex-girlfriend who hides her grief under a bubbly personality, and John Leal, the charismatic cult leader she becomes entangled with. He’s also, according to The Guardian:
“A shitty, possessive boyfriend and a chronic gaslighter. When caught in a lie by Phoebe, who realizes he’s been moonlighting at an Italian restaurant instead of studying, he half apologizes, then interrupts the apology to wistfully wonder if he didn’t tell her the truth because ‘sometimes I thought you guessed.’ ‘Don’t fucking pretend I was in on this,’ Phoebe has to tell him.”
Will is a liar, self-admitted: “I’d lied so long, I found how natural it can be.” He lies easily and habitually and especially when talking about the women in his life, even when those women are strangers to him.
While working a summer job in Beijing, Will follows a girl home at night because she reminds him of Phoebe. He tells us that he stays half a block behind her and tries to be quiet. He tells us that “the streets emptied; to keep up, I had to quicken my stride.” When the girl finally looks back, Will tells us that, “Despite the pains I’d taken, she looked afraid. I’d wanted to follow the girl for just a few minutes. But now, accused, I felt insulted.” At another point, Will joins his colleagues in making sexist jokes at his restaurant job. His one female coworker overhears him, and Will seems to feel a pang of guilt, letting his readers know that “in principle” he sided with his coworker’s discomfort: “Until now, I hadn’t added to this kind of machismo, but what could I do?” (I don’t know, Will. Maybe not that? Maybe you could not do that). Will portrays himself as the victim in both of these situations, trapped by circumstances and tragically misunderstood.
Yet because Will shows us over and over again how devoted he is to Phoebe—how he lovingly cuts her fruit, how he overspends on her, how he wants to protect her from her own bad choices—he’s able to mask his own misogyny. That’s Kwon’s magic trick for her unreliable narrator. Will minimizes his possessiveness, callousness, and cowardice towards other women while emphasizing his passion for Phoebe. Maybe that’s why, even after his abuse towards Phoebe turns physical, NPR’s review says that “readers will feel the pain when Phoebe deserts Will and the poor besotted boy crumbles.”
Admittedly, I had the same experience. Will sinks so completely into his belief—his fanaticism—in his love for Phoebe that I was fooled too. I believed him as well. When a character recoils from Will at the novel’s end and tells him that they’d “urged Phoebe to go to the police,” I had to look up from the pages. Why would they report Will to—oh.
I read the last third of the book in one sitting, so it had been only around forty-five minutes since I’d learned why Will should be in prison. In The Incendiaries, Kwon has created an unreliable narrator who is charismatic, pitiable, and terrifyingly understandable, and for about an hour, we formed a cult of two.
Not anymore, though. Go fuck yourself, Will.