Unreliable Narration and the Fantastic in Kingsley Amis's the Green Man and Nigel Williams's Witchcraft

By Horstkotte, Martin | Extrapolation, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Unreliable Narration and the Fantastic in Kingsley Amis's the Green Man and Nigel Williams's Witchcraft


Horstkotte, Martin, Extrapolation


In her recent study of border crossings in the literature of the fantastic, Annette Simonis considers, among other issues, the relation between the fantastic and unreliable narration. She approaches the topic by claiming that there exists a special form of unreliable narration in the fantastic that produces a state of peculiar hesitancy in the reader and thus, a la Todorov, prevents any conclusion as to the reality status of the events depicted (207f.). She also asserts that this form of unreliable narration frequently occurs in the fantastic (114). Unfortunately, Simonis neither delivers any definition of unreliable narration nor takes the time to apply her theory in detail to any fantastic texts. On the whole, her theory deserves more attention than she herself is able to give it in the context of her study, and I would like to base the following article on it. However, before giving an overview over the theoretical discussion of unreliable narration so far, I have to qualify Simonis's assertion in one point. Although it is certainly true that there are a certain number of fantastic narratives that are related by unreliable narrators, I would hesitate to agree that this is a frequent phenomenon in the literature of the fantastic. I would rather like to state the reverse case, namely that much, if not most of unreliable narration at least has strong affinities with the fantastic and that some of it is outright fantastic. This is due to the fact that an unreliable narrator tends to construct a version of the world that is at odds with how the reader her- or himself sees it, so that a fantastic clash between two worlds ensues which is either reconciled in the end or not. Ansgar Nunning's excellent bibliography of unreliable narratives lists a number of such texts that belong to the fantastic, such as Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho, Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum, James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Henry James's The Turn of the Screw and others (287-290).

In the following article, I will take Simonis's theory further by examining two texts not mentioned by Nunning, Kingsley Amis's The Green Man and Nigel Williams's Witchcraft, and by arguing that unreliable narration and the fantastic are intimately connected and that unreliable narration is able to bring about the pure fantastic as defined by Todorov (25). As I will show below, these two texts are particularly apt for this kind of discussion because of their overall similarity that makes their different treatment of unreliable narration and the fantastic all the more conspicuous.

The "unreliable narrator" is a term that was coined by Wayne C. Booth in his famous The Rhetoric of Fiction, in which he defines narrative unreliability like this: "For lack of better terms, I have called a narrator reliable when he speaks for or acts in accordance with the norms of the work (which is to say, the implied author's norms), unreliable when he does not" (158f.). It is unfortunate that Booth chose to define the unreliable narrator by referring to another equally shadowy figure, that of the implied author, a choice that obfuscates the matter rather than enlightening the reader. The idea of the implied author was developed by Booth to be able to discuss a text's author without having to resort to any biographically tinged readings, a sensitive issue during the high tide of New Criticism. Booth uses the term to subsume the entirety of the text's meaning, tone, style and technique and also "the moral and emotional content of each bit of action and suffering of all the characters" (73). What Booth means by the "implied author" is therefore the text in toto and the moral standards it conveys to the reader; in his model, the narrator rather than the text as a whole must be termed unreliable. The differentiation between text and narrator is important in order to give the reader a yardstick with which to measure the narrator's reliability; if there were no signals given in the text that the narrator may not speak the truth, then the narrator's unreliability cannot be noticed by the reader.

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