Unrealiable Narrators in the Postmodern Novel by Nick

In which we discussed those tricky unreliable narrators, Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances, and masculinity as a flaw in my favorite movies.

Fight Club . The Usual Suspects. American Psycho. Aside from being pillars of great American cinema (what? A stretch?), they are also some of my all-time favorite movies. Now, you may say ‘Sure, you’re a guy, and these are very male-centric films’ and if you said that you wouldn’t be too terribly mistaken. Fight Club writer Palahniuk has said in numerous interviews that the book is about masculinity. Masculinity, being the prima facie of the book, but also a kind of de facto masculinity that replaces a sense of accomplishment, a sense of honor. American Psycho too, in large part, comments on a crises of masculinity in a postmodern context.

But, there is something else all these films have in common as well. That being the trope of the unreliable narrator. The first person narrator who cannot be altogether trusted, whose credibility, whether compromised somehow, is questionable. The problem with this literary device is that the reader/viewer usually does not know the narrator cannot be trusted until the end of the work in which some grand ‘Eureka’ moment is revealed. So how does one know that a narrator is unreliable if it isn’t explicitly made clear?

Rachel Galchen’s debut novel Atmospheric Disturbances resolves this problem in the opening pages. The reader has some sort of an idea that the narrator is flawed in some way, his perception not entirely accurate. He thinks his wife has been replaced by a doppelganger. The narrator is immediately suspect. For a debut, this novel has its wonderful moments. For one thing, it’s laugh-out-loud funny. I found myself getting strange looks in restaurants and on the bus, and even heard some annoyed sighs while in a public restroom. (True? A lie? I’ll never tell…) Galchen’s prose is often remarkable; the writing clever and humorous.

But unfortunately, this novel’s strong points are often its biggest weaknesses. Sometimes the writing seemed almost self-aware of its own wit. An example being the word ‘ersatz’ used in abundance. Maybe too abundantly. The antagonist/narrator is a psychiatrist, and while the language definitely lends itself to a believability regarding his profession, he also comes across as unemotional. I’ve had friends say they just didn’t care about the protagonist, didn’t care much about his plight. He is pragmatic, calculating, scientific. These attributes are fine when it’s necessary to show the reader the narrator’s profession, but not so much when he believes his wife, the love of his life, has been replaced by an imposter.

All in all, this is an interesting exercise in the postmodern novel: the two motifs of the doppelganger and the unreliable narrator. Even the end is a staple of postmodernism. Galchen has a promising career ahead of her. And hey, the things I found irksome some may actually enjoy. It’s definitely worth checking out and it’s a quick read, taboot.


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