Oh, that unreliable narrator!

I just finished Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden and I may just have to read it again. I need to see if what I now know about the characters changes how I feel about them from the start. The story is told by the unnamed narrator who is staying in Molly Fox’s Dublin apartment while Molly is in New York. She tells the story of her friendship with Molly, an acclaimed stage actress, and the friends they’ve had in common while observing how Molly’s flat reflects its owner. The narrator is a successful playwright, a close observer, a writer who finds material in small, unusual incidents.

Over the course of one day her thoughts range over their friendship with its ups and downs and other (mostly male) friends and family members, particularly Andrew, a well-known art critic. Molly is something of an enigma to the narrator despite the fact that they are very close. But the narrator is something of an enigma to the reader, and we realize that these two women may be incapable of closeness because of the professions they’ve chosen. Or, because of their detachment, have the professions chosen them? Madden–and the narrator–dole out information in bits and pieces; maddeningly, tantalizingly, we don’t always have the information we need to assess what we’re being told. There’s no plot to speak of–the plot’s in our heads as we try to understand the characters and their motivations. It’s a very absorbing “take” on an old plot device. In addition, there’s great food for thought about the craft of acting and, by extension, the creation of character in writing. 

When it comes to memoirs, the unreliable narrator is the ground under our feet. If we used the same narrative device–following our thoughts and actions for a day–how much would we choose to tell when we sat down that night to write it up? What would we embellish, omit, analyze, forget, or misinterpret? If we imposed a narrative structure to make it interesting, would that edge it over into fiction? Maybe that’s the fascination of memoirs–the different ways that writers use their material. I’m thinking about this in the light of several memoirs I’ve just read. More to come…

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