Books Random

The Unreliable Narrator

The compelling inaugural read of the Wheatsheaf Inn book club was Ross Raisin’s God’s Own Country. Early on the narrator, Sam Marsdyke, tells us about the attempted rape allegation that prematurely ended his school career. In his version it was a mutually reciprocated teenage dalliance interrupted by a teacher with unfortunate timing. I believed him. Then, a few pages later, Sam dropkicks a chicken for no particular reason and the doubts set in. Sam’s descent into the realm of the unreliable narrator continues unabated from there.

Over the weekend husband had occasion to tell the story of his own “chicken dropkick” moment with a much more personal unreliable narrator, his mother, who suffered from undiagnosed schizophrenia for many years of husband’s childhood. When he was ten years old he decided to reverse engineer a record player and, in the process of disassembling the transformer, gave himself a nasty electric shock. The experience disturbed him and over the next few days he became convinced he had developed a lump in his chest caused by the shock. After a few more days he decided to confide his worries in his mother. He told her the whole story, then she asked him what he thought the lump could be.

“I think it might be cancer,” whispered husband.

His mother paused and thought this over before answering.

“Could be, son,” she replied. “Could be.”

Lately I too have been struggling with the reliability of some personal narration in my life. For the last few days my right arm has felt weak. I notice it most when I’m driving and want to drape it on the arm rest or lay it in my lap in an imaginary sling position to get relief. I’m worried it’s an MS-related symptom, but husband is convinced it’s nothing. He tells me I’m just getting old and feeling creaky is to be expected. The problem is he’s understandably invested in me not exhibiting MS symptoms, having no desire to ponder a future in which he gets to play nursemaid to someone with a chronic illness. The part of me that knows positive thinking matters in situations like these welcomes his optimism. But another part of me knows he’s a fundamentally unreliable narrator on this particular subject.

He has, however, made one very accurate observation of late. Ever since this whole health debacle started, my brain has gone into overdrive making me highly sensitive to any physical anomalies no matter how slight. No cramp, tinge or tingle goes unnoticed. It’s as if 24/7 surveillance has been installed in my central nervous system. The fundamental question, though, is how reliable is the person my brain has put on duty to monitor the surveillance? Is it an Agent Scully type in charge, smart and grounded even in the face of an alien attack on my neurons? I’d be happy if P.I. Precious Ramotswe was on the case, wise and warm and down to earth seeming somehow appropriate for the task at hand. But maybe my cerebellum has gone and hired an overzealous mall cop for the task and now he’s stirring up “symptoms” to justify his own inflated sense of self-importance.

Of course I am hopeful my brain has just made a poor hiring decision and my lazy right arm is all down to mall cop’s overactive imagination. After all, there’s no need for the warmth and wisdom of the Lady’s No.1 Detective if there’s nothing wrong. I’ll find out soon enough because my follow up appointment with the neurologist is booked for the end of the month. Until then I’m keeping my inner mall cop away from the phone.

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