“I wouldn’t have made fun of my father for being fat if he wasn’t so mean. It felt good to be mean back.”
What makes a narrator reliable or unreliable?
It’s not a question that generally matters much to anyone but writers, writing students and the occasional old-school critic, but it’s a vital question nonetheless, and one that can inform how we understand both real and fictional people — their histories and aspirations, their rhetoric and their lies. To consider reliability is to parse through motive and truth; to understand when or how we can be seduced with words. It is a small, but powerful guide for our internal dowsing rods which are attuned to detect beauty and the universal familiar, and also, bullshit.
How do you know if a narrator is reliable? And how do you know if the words in a 300-page novel are worth your time? Pick a passage. Closely read the text, yes, but then close your eyes and repeat the words aloud — do they resonate? Do you have a physical reaction to hearing them spoken? Does the prose spark something, or does it leave you cold? Do the words haunt?
Michael Kimball’s words haunt.
Michael Kimball, a native of Baltimore and author of eight novels including the critically acclaimed Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (On a Postcard), and Big Ray, masterfully manipulates not only the question of reliability, but the possibilities of the novel form itself. When he took to the podium at SCAD’s Ivy Hall, the packed room of mostly students fell silent, dowsing rods ready to receive something — a transmission.
The act of listening to prose or poetry read aloud is very much like divination. But instead of a Y-shaped rod pointed at the earth, one comes to a place with a heightened sense of the present. A reading is an agreement between an author and his or her audience, a contract that says ‘I will emit, and you will receive.’ So many things can be a barrier or an enhancement to this process — the particular way an author looks or sounds, the lighting of the space, the distraction of someone shuffling in his chair next to you, for instance. At Ivy Hall, physical space and sumptuous furnishings create a special emotional climate that primes one to receive beauty.
If you haven’t made your way to SCAD’s Ivy Hall yet, do yourself a favor and go. Perched on a hilltop just off Ponce, between Mary Mac’s Tea Room and a hideously massive stone façade apartment building, the renovated mansion and writing center is a stunner. Romantically lit and art-filled, Ivy Hall is a reprieve from the Midtown bustle. Located on the second floor in a small loft area, the main stage was flanked by a large oval table (presumably used for writing workshops), a small velvet couch and several tight rows of wooden school chairs. Given the selections that Kimball prepared for the evening, there was something appropriate about both the loveliness and the forced intimacy of the space.
After an almost embarrassingly heartfelt introduction by fellow writer and SCAD professor Jamie Iredell — “Every time I’ve heard him read, I don’t think I’ve ever left without being moved to tears!” — Kimball ignored the usual pleasantries and dove right in, skipping the often awful and unnecessary preemptive explanations or charming nothings that so many writers feel obligated to offer before readings of their own work.
For his first act, Kimball selected an opening passage from Us, dropping the audience into a bedroom where a man awakes to find that his beloved wife is dead, or near death. And she is dead or near dying in excruciating detail, in abrupt observations that grieve and account for this grief in an oddly specific, declarative mode generally reserved for clinical charts and police accounts:
“I turned our bedroom light on, but that didn’t wake her up. I tried to shake her some more, but that didn’t wake her up either. I laid her shoulders back down on our bed, and her head back down on her pillow. I picked a glass of water up from the bedside table and opened her mouth, and tipped some back in, but she didn’t swallow it.”
Kimball went on like this for several minutes, and then continued on to detail the emergency responders, and the drive to the hospital with the same blow-by-blow treatment.
‘Who remembers these kinds of things when their spouse is dying?’ I remember asking myself, suddenly skeptical or disinterested in the narrator’s account and distracted by the excess of detail despite gorgeously wrought lines explicitly aimed at accruing sympathy like, “The hood of the ambulance was warm, and it made me think that my wife might still be alive,” and, “The streetlights blinked off and on. I didn’t want to lose the streetlights […] I didn’t want to lose my wife.” His reading of this particular selection was equally numbing, almost trance-like. But given Kimball’s obvious talent, I suspect this wasn’t an accident so much as an intentional mirroring of the ways that loss can sometimes stymy those closest to it.
For his second act, Kimball toyed with the notion of reliability again as he read from his novel Dear Everybody, and in doing so, he taught his audience of burgeoning and seasoned writers one unexpected thing: that the epistolary novel can be inventive and entertaining as hell, especially when one of the main protagonists is a schizophrenic weather man retelling the story of his life through a kaleidoscope of sources ranging from encyclopedia entries, weather reports and imagined conversations with a childhood bully.
The highlight of the evening, though, came with Kimball’s final reading from Big Ray, and the audience Q&A that followed thereafter. The night began and ended with a story of death. But whereas the first account left me feeling detached, the second — this time about the passing of one man’s obese, abusive and complicated father, Ray — left me squirming and searching my heart for answers about my own father’s death in the way that only excellent writing can. In lieu of the death knell minutiae seen earlier, Kimball here delivered something messier and more emotionally earnest. Scattered memories of family violence and a litany of off-humor jokes (“How do you make a dead dad sundae? Two scoops of ice cream, and one scoop of dead dad.”) come together to create a snapshot of a richly human experience — an authentic one, teeming with the dual presences of trauma and joy with lines like, “When my father died I felt like the only one with a dead father. But then I remembered all the other dead dads of the people I knew.”