Does an unreliable narrator mean the author is also unreliable?
In the previous article, about “mad, bad and dangerous to know” authors, I posed the questions of how and why authors create entire œuvres with the same disreputable characters as they themselves are. Interestingly, some authors have led lives as disreputable as their characters, but some have not – contrary to expectations.
Donna Tartt – The answer is hard work
This link puzzled the heck of me, particularly when I read Donna Tartt’s descriptions of a drug-addled existence in The Goldfinch. How could she have gotten it so compellingly realistic? (People called it “eerily accurate”.) People asked the question straight out: Does Donna Tartt use drugs? Well, as the main character, “Theo”, a compulsive liar and petty criminal, put it in the book, and as Tartt herself has confirmed, the “hard, lonely truth” is that it takes years of daily slog and sheer hard work to write a novel – whatever it is about. The famously reclusive author is not known to use drugs, and has never explained what it took to write about it. And that’s that.
Peter Finlay/DBC Pierre – Drugged-up for a decade
Vicariously living the drugged-up, suicide-obsessed life of the delinquent first-person narrator, “Gabriel Brockwell”, in DBC Pierre’s Lights Out in Wonderland, was a strange and unnerving experience for me. But I got through it, mainly because I was too weirded-out to stop reading. DBC Pierre is a pseudonym (DBC meaning Dirty But Clean) and that’s how it gets spelled, but the author was born Peter Finlay. His previous Man Booker Award-winning novel, Vernon God Little, was not about the same types of characters as in Lights Out in Wonderland, but Finlay had some experience in his past of drug addiction. He says that after he turned 27 he spent nine/ten years in a drug-induced haze. By the time he was 37, his prospects were bleak.
“Flat broke, he’d been unemployed for a decade – and when he applied for a job stacking shelves in a supermarket, he was turned down. “They didn’t hire me because I was too weird, plus I was very honest, which doesn’t help you in life these days. They’d say: ‘What have you been doing for the past five years?’ And I’d say: ‘I was in rehab for three years and before that I was in the courts.’ He told them about his drug addiction and the narcissistic personality disorder he had struggled to overcome. Whether the illness was caused by the drugs, Pierre doesn’t know, but he was told that his clinical disorder manifested itself in him having lofty and completely unrealistic dreams.” (Source: The man who fell to earth, in The Independent, April 16, 2006)
Finlay has cleaned up his life and wrote the charming Ludmila’s Broken English (2006), and his latest is Release the Bats (July 2016). So, his past only shapes his characters up to a point. Unlike some authors, his complete œuvre is not defined by his addiction or mental illness. He is an example of an unreliable narrator in a book, not being created by an unreliable author.
Writing NOT from personal experience
Some authors write from a basis of personal experience, others, no experience, and these approaches require different amounts of effort, particularly for far-removed subjects, plots and characters. But the fact remains that some authors have written about alcoholism, drug addition, mental illness and generally unsavoury conduct, while being like that themselves. The bodies of work of these authors are entirely about their own addictions and illnesses. The link is extremely close.
David Cornwell/John le Carré – Not the same persona
But sometimes the link may not be so definitive. Take David John Moore Cornwell, who is the owner and creator of the pseudonym John le Carré. (Did you know that?) Though Cornwell had enough of an interesting career and family to give him material on which to base his mysteries and spy novels, there is a very wide gap between him and the fictional author “John le Carré” and John le Carré’s characters in the novels. You could even say he and his pseudonym are opposites.
“Each book feels like my last book. And then I think, like a dedicated alcoholic, that one more won’t do me any harm. David Cornwell’s not a functioning alcoholic but he’s created a stable full of imperfect characters over the years as John le Carré, a name he does not answer to. It’s an abstraction that exists in his writing studio, and on the cover of his books, like a spy’s name on a phony passport.” (Dasvid Cornwell in an interview on CBS 60 Minutes, Jan. 21, 2018)
(Don’t misread that. He says “like a dedicated alcoholic”. Interesting that he refers to himself in the 3rd person.)
Irvine Welsh – Clean living
Another author who is almost comically sober and civilized is Irvine Welsh whose novels, particularly Trainspotting, is just a riot of depictions of recreational drug use. The titles of his novels pretty much tell you what they are about: Trainspotting (1993), Marabou Stork Nightmares (1995), Filth (1998), Glue (2001), Porno (2002), The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs (2006), Crime (2008), Skagboys (2012), The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins (2014), A Decent Ride (2015), The Blade Artist (2016), and Dead Men’s Trousers (2018).
He said that, as a youth, he used drugs, particularly heroin, which were part of the “normal landscape” when he was in his early 20s. To fund his habit he got into scams and theft, but got clean after a work accident and spent his life since 1991 doing ordinary jobs and writing. He sounds like anything but his characters:
“How does he “choose life” in 2016? Welsh says he’s “talked enough shite with guys in bars”; consequently he’s replaced alcohol and heroin with boxing and yoga and swapped Edinburgh for Chicago, while counting most of his friends now as women, a product of his wife being younger than him and having inherited her social circle.” (Thomas Gorton, Irvine Welsh on 25 years of choosing life, Arts + Culture, Dazed Digital, Oct. 13, 2016)