Unreliable Narration

Reading al fresco

Mark’s head drooped on the desk while his teacher discussed the unreliable narrator. Mark had hardly slept the night before. His blinds were broken. They wouldn’t close. He was in his favourite (embarrassing) Superman pyjamas when he realised. He pulled the blinds, yanked them, shoved them. Nothing. He summoned Dan, his roommate. Dan pulled them, yanked them, shoved them. Nothing. The night before, Dan had thrown a party and Mark assumed that one of the guests used the blinds as a xylophone after too many vodka sodas. Mark glared at the purplish-yellow light illuminating his room.

Mr. Bryn dreaded the final week of lessons. Students didn’t listen. They acted as if topics introduced near exams were irrelevant. This outraged Mr. Bryn. A module irrigated your knowledge! And knowledge is a terrarium. The soil should be firm, solid — he hoped that previous professors provided students with a sturdy foundation, but sturdy wasn’t enough. You needed to add trees so ideas could breathe. Then you incorporated plants, animals and insects because even though they disgusted you, a thriving environment required noxious bits. When students arrived at his course, Advanced Literary Structures, they should be climbing the trees. Counting tree rings and uncovering rare flora and fauna — that wasn’t for undergraduates. Though, in his experience, students wanted to leap from the jungle floor to high exotica. In doing so, they toppled from their perch among the trees and ran the risk of getting covered in thorny, ant-like ideas.

Mr. Bryn structured his courses to enhance, week by week, the fertility of the mind’s terrarium. Narration was his favourite. It was his City of Z, his poison dart frog, his bright Rafflesia Flower. He devoted his career to cataloguing the intricacies of narration with the care and precision of a tropical biologist exploring the Amazon.

Mark craved the structure narration provided. He imagined clear essays that told a story, exam papers that unfurled logical points and job applications that squeezed into an ecological niche. The two months until graduation were the only metric guiding his life. Each day was a lesson in university’s most dreaded unit: Advanced Living with Parents. His history degree? It was knowledge without form. That’s what he was reminded by his grandfather and grandmother and aunt and cousin who landed a job straight out of university and bought an Audi within a year. Mark couldn’t convince them with stories of hanging out at the library with Asian engineers, drinking amorphous green drinks at Lizard Lounge and arguing with Dan about Foucault. So he spent his evenings sowing experience into his CV and pruning job applications.

Job applications were the silt you had to sieve for riches that someone else had probably (surely) already found. Mark had applied to and been rejected from internships at every magazine he read. He submitted applications to London museums to sit at a desk and distribute free maps, but they wanted people experienced in handling promotional materials. Not a degree. Three times a day his mother emailed him information about accountancy graduate schemes with late vacancies. He wouldn’t be working at Deloitte — ha! They would have lost his application to avoid wasting time sending him a cut-and-paste rejection letter — but he could spend a year training with Bayden Loading Inc., a logistics company in Nottingham. Mark grudgingly nudged his computer keys inventing answers to inane questions. Where do you see yourself in five years? If you had to choose an animal to describe your management style, which would you choose and why? Lectures were the only respite from the stultifying lead up to graduation.

Gazing at his students, scribbling notes in their too-shiny notebooks, Mr. Bryn no longer believed that he had once sat on that side of the lecture hall. Or rather, he remembered the late nights fuelled by bright clouds of revision and essays that gripped him in a mania of yellow-hued excitement. In class, exhilaration pelted his pen across the page, producing legible notes at a speed now unreachable. Even writing, these students seemed calm, sedate, tranquil. Mr. Bryn contemplated why as students filed in for office hours, but directed his gaze to the potted plant on his windowsill to prevent his face from contorting into a mask of frustrated disappointment. Students didn’t need his perspective.

Mr. Bryn was also careful not to share his views with other faculty. That didn’t stop the other professors, however, and thus the recorded talking points at departmental meetings were all pseudonyms for gossip. After a perfunctory discussion of course structures and funding (of which there was none), Janice began on opinions. She was a medievalist, in love with Chaucer but occasionally flirting with Boccaccio and Italian authors. Janice taught upper-level courses and found 93% of her pupils lacking. Mostly she hated their grammar. Once the word ‘grammar’ was uttered, the meeting was cancelled by default as they chorused the never-ending atrocities that punctuated student papers: the missing semicolon, the non-existent em dash, the pervasive run on sentences and the blatantly misused prepositions. When Janice paused for breath, Robert began. He lamented students’ apathy and reminded everyone that their professors would have punished sloppy syntax with a third. Mr. Bryn nodded and sighed but never joined in. The shadows of his opinions illuminated such emotion that he was apprehensive of the consequences of their release.

On the rare occasions that Mark’s friends discussed their professors, Mark presented the most fully formed opinions. He had his favourites and he’d thought too much about them. His girlfriend and mother insisted this was effeminate. That didn’t matter to Mark. After devoting himself to an issue, he developed intellectual bonds of steel with the professor who assigned him said topic. Gripping a book, taking notes, reading the criticism; these tasks ushered Mark into the mental universe his teachers had stepped into years earlier. To Mark, such shared action meant a shared emotion.

Indeed, this was Mark’s core belief. He was quick to act but not to share. Writing an essay was an exercise in waiting for inspiration to strike. As soon as his understanding blossomed like a tree in the rainforest after a monsoon, he instinctively knew his thesis and could write until his essay was done and fully edited. Others found this illogical, unbelievable. His parents groaned over his single-mindedness. His friends complained when Mark’s attention seemed permanently devoted elsewhere. Even Mark’s professors regarded his work habits as irrational. They wanted to equip him with a schedule when he loathed the waiting. He wanted only action.

Mr. Bryn is behind his desk discussing the unreliable narrator. He has cited several famous examples — examples students should already know or currently be writing down. Mark is at his desk, half-asleep. His pen moves across his the page in his pukka pad that he will later rip out and catalogue into a subject-specific binder. The handwriting resembles gibberish Arabic rather than good, geometric print. Mark hears the words ‘unreliable narrator’ and he writes them down, planning to search for examples later. Reciting these examples, Mr. Bryn feels like he’s betraying a friend for the dubious benefit of apathetic students. They are the friends upon which he has built his life. Mark surveys the room, wondering how he’ll manage to build a life from the sleep-deformed lessons that went into his history degree.

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