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From: Alex David Groce <Alex_Groce@gs246.sp.cs.cmu.edu>
Subject: (urth) Re: (whorl) Untrustworthy Narrators?
Date: Mon, 18 Oct 1999 12:35:53 

I'm sending this to both lists, since the general issue of narrative
reliability seems to be coming up on both lists.  I'll try to avoid OBW
spoilers, which shouldn't be too hard--I assume everyone knows (if you haven't
read LONG SUN don't finish this sentence :) Horn and Nettle wrote "The Book
of Silk."

(1)  Wolfe and his narrators make it tricky enough for the reader to figure
out everything that's going on as it is.  I generally assume Wolfe's narrators
may be leaving out things that I would really like to know, either because they
are not interested in them or because they wish to avoid thinking about them
(Severian does more of the first, Weer in PEACE does a lot of the second),
but that if they tell me something, it is true, although perhaps not true in
the sense that I originally took it to be (indeed, New Sun in general is a
multifoliate opening of new levels of meaning to Severian's narrative--and
Severian famously says (I paraphrase) "have I said that the universe has a way
of making all of our lies come true?").

Even Nardan (assuming it's him writing!) in "Seven American Nights" does very
little apparent LYING to the reader--he deletes some things, of course, but
his fundamental narrative honesty is notable in that we _can figure out that he
left things out, and even what those things might have been_.

In the absense of an external source of information or massive internal
inconsistencies, it seems to me that narrator unreliability is undetectable,
and the safe assumption where there isn't this strong whiff of madness or 
misleading intent on the narrator's part is that the narrator intended to
convey the truth.  Success depends on the access of the narrator to the full
truth, of course, and so varies.  I assume Severian is basically telling the
truth.  Inconsistencies in Severian's narrative have always seemed to me to be
either (A) in some cases mistakes on Wolfe's part or (B) hints that Severian is
not living in only one time-line.  I'm curious as to instances of Severian
actually lying (as opposed to being mistaken) that people have found?  That
Drotte/Roche thing is weird, and I've never noticed it...  Maybe with 
Severian(1) it was the other one?

"Unreliable narrator" is tossed around too often, I think--even old Humbert
Humbert in LOLITA tells us mostly the truth.  I think Wolfe has very few, if
any, narrators, who are not _attemtping_ to give us the straight scoop, 
occasionally failing.  Severian is open to more intense questioning than most
in that his "perfect memory" should give him an advantage in doing this, but
the fact that Severian walks the Corridors of Time, returns from the dead, has
a head full of Autarchs, and may have existed in several alternate time-lines
where he failed that have some impact on his present time-line complicates the
question of when he's actually mixed-up, and when he's telling the truth but
the truth is "inconsistent" or weird.

(2)  Sure the uncertainty priniciple is involved in the LONG SUN narrative, at
a meta-level.  I agree that Wolfe is absolutely correct to leave the Dr. Crane
hypothesis open, but hard to swallow (if we talk about these as being real
events, I think that if a sceptic I'd find the recurrence of so many parallels
with the Exodus and the Gospels in a world seemingly without either to be 
pretty convincing evidence that something very strange was going on) from our
perspective as readers--but perfectly open to those experiencing the events.
Also, this leaves open how much Horn and Nettle made up--and how much what
they made corresponds to the real deal.  What I'm saying is that Wolfe is
definitely making this somewhat like the composition of the Gospels/the
Exodus story.  So, although you are certainly not constrained to think 
otherwise by the text, I suspect that we will find, if we see Silk again (be
quiet, people who've read OBW) that the sayings/feelings/events of LONG SUN
match the Silk we see in any less suspect context very closely.  And that it
is safe to use even events/words that Horn and Nettle could not have verified
in arguments about "what really happened" and what's likely to happen in OBW.
I doubt this argument can really go anywhere, in that the only evidence we'll
get is internal evidence from the text (unless we have another LONG SUN type
"revelation" from Wolfe, but then he also squashed the Dr. Crane hypothesis
from that one, as we could have forseen--the danger of revelation) and that's
unlikely to really verify things one way or the other (unless Silk says "Horn,
what were you making up that nonsense for?" but I'm guessing we won't see 
that scene).

"And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." John 8:32
Alex David Groce (agroce+@cs.cmu.edu)
Ph.D. Student, Carnegie Mellon University - Computer Science Department
8112 Wean Hall (412)-268-3066

*More Wolfe info & archive of this list at http://www.urth.net/urth/

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