Learning to Trust the Unreliable Narrator

Ken Webster as Thom Pain

Ken Webster as Thom Pain

I saw a one man theater piece last night at Hyde Park Theater called Thom Pain, Based On Nothing.

Full disclosure: I’ve been a Ken Webster fan for years, and we used to work together pretty regularly.

I know playwriting is not a typical Yellow Bird topic. But I woke up today with this play still living in my head. Specifically, it left me with a really big question that I felt I needed to answer. How does one successfully write a story using an unreliable narrator?

I’m usually not much of a fan of the unreliable narrator. And, before last night I would have told you that it has no place in live theater. But I’m here to tell you this morning that I was wrong. Ken Webster’s interpretation of Will Eno’s script is a must see proof of just how wrong I was. You’ve got one more week to see what I’m talking about, but it’s selling out fast.

Don’t fret, I’m not reviewing the play. It just left me with my question about that pesky, often annoying device known as the unreliable narrator. I have a hard time empathizing with a story teller who I don’t trust. Such a device can be fun at first. It can add tension by forcing the reader (or audience) to parse the information the narrator is giving and decide what to believe or not. But that kind of exercise quickly gets old and descends into the realm of the gimmicky.

So what was it about the play I saw last night that kept that from happening? As a writer, I needed to figure out what Eno did differently when he created Thom Pain.

The Albertine Notes is part of this collection

The Albertine Notes is part of this collection

The last unreliable narrator I remember was in Rick Moody’s novellaThe Albertine Notes. The plot of that story demands an unreliable narrator: it’s the story of a guy under the influence of a drug that alters not only his consciousness but general human history, as well. Even given those imperatives, my growing distrust for the narrator was confusing and off putting. Though, I must admit I’m glad I finished it. The story does have enough a payoff at the end to make it a worthwhile read.

So, what is it that makes an unreliable narrator palatable? I think it’s as simple as empathy. It’s that age old story telling truism. If you don’t care about the hero, then you don’t care about the story. And, somehow, despite all of Thom Pain’s attempts to push me away last night, I found myself caring about his struggles. His life – his twisted path to happiness – mattered to me. So I stood up and clapped at the end. And this morning I woke up with that character’s words still bouncing around in my head.

I’ll close with a telling moment from last night. After a particularly well written and delivered line, I heard someone sitting behind me whisper, “What a great line.” And it was, Thom Pain had just said, “I disappeared into her. And she, not knowing where I went…, left.” The narrative took on a universal dimension in that moment. All humans can relate to that feeling of being so in love with another person that you lose yourself. Just as all humans can relate to the fear inherent in such a letting go of the self.

I guess that’s what makes an unreliable narrator work: He or she speaks just enough important truth to make the audience stay with them through the preponderance of their lies.