I am sitting in my living room with seven of my closest friends, watching Kristopher — whom I’ve known since third grade — tell me all about who he is. He tells me that his intentions are just. That he really is a good guy. He looks me in the eyes, smiles without blinking and asks me to trust him.
I’m positive that he’s lying to my face.
He’s not telling me who he really is, of course. We’re playing Avalon, a game of hidden roles. Our “identities” have been assigned by cards, and Kristopher’s evil intentions will only last for the length of this game. Still, in the spirit of competition, I scrutinize him as I would a mortal enemy. I listen to his story carefully, certain that it’s full of holes, certain that he is unreliable. After the game ends, we resume our real lives and he reveals that we were on the same team all along. I had only tricked myself.
Then we start a new game. This time I’m the evil one. Spinning a tangled web of lies, I feel like the author of a brilliant novel with an unreliable narrator.
Every college student had to read at least one such novel in high school. Books like Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” and J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye,” in which the story’s narrator, the almighty giver of information, seems a bit too involved in their own story to give us a clear picture of what’s really going on.
These types of novels have always produced a unique anxiety in me. Since my early reading days, the narrator has been a comforting presence — a gentle, impersonal voice that supplies me with stories and lets me form my own opinions about them. The first time I noticed that a narrator wasn’t telling me everything, it felt like a close friend was lying to my face.
As a result of this desire to believe, novels with unreliable narrators are often misunderstood. Often, a lying narrator still hijacks my attention and convinces me to accept a false story as true. Nabokov’s “Lolita” is a perfect example of this effect. At its heart, the novel is a deeply disturbing account of a grown man’s obsession with a 12-year-old girl. But the narrator, Humbert Humbert, conveniently skims over the elements of the story that might indict him as a monster in the reader’s eyes.
The first time I read it in high school, I mistook it for a love story. Many of my friends have similar stories of their first read-through. Each of us was confronted by the same deceitful narrator and we all fell under his spell. We didn’t uncover the horrors of the story because we didn’t want to be disturbed. We expected the truth, so we didn’t question anything.
At their roots, such stories play on a reader’s expectations. When I uncover the motivations of an unreliable narrator, the end result is cathartic — I have analyzed the story at its source, seen through its tricks and come out the wiser for it.
But this catharsis is never total, because both the narrator and their stories aren’t real. I only feel a sense of triumph over a fictional character. When the game is over, there is nothing left but to play another one.
The true test of this critical mindset comes when I try to apply the same skepticism to real life and to the news that I read every day. I often find myself keeping “pet newspapers” — specific publications that I read religiously, and whose takes on modern issues align most closely with my own.
I tell myself I’m being objective. That I’m not sharing “fake Facebook news,” so surely I’m not being manipulated.
But the fact remains that I usually don’t apply the same scrutiny to news that I do to literature. I believe “reports” and “statements” because the words sound authoritative. I’m fine letting someone else do my fact-checking for me. I even feel myself dismissing contrary views because they are uncomfortable.
As with the intoxicating narrator in “Lolita,” I sometimes snap to attention and realize just how much I’m relying on a few sources for the majority of my worldview. I feel like a ventriloquist dummy sitting on the legs of the New York Times and Politico, woodenly quoting articles in conversations without realizing how little I actually know about their topics.
But then I read another article, and I feel like I’m receiving divine confirmation that I’m smarter than everyone around me, that I’m the most informed human on the planet.
I don’t know where my opinions stop and the media’s begin. I only know that my intentions are just. I really am a good guy.
Look me in my smiling, unblinking eyes.
Do you trust me?
Anthony writes the Monday column on literature and life. Contact him at [email protected].