I Don't Believe You
have said that, in Silver Linings, Pat is an unreliable narrator. Let’s look at this more closely.
An unreliable narrator is a narrator whose credibility is compromised. They aren’t telling the story accurately, because of a need to lie, or in Pat’s case, a need to deny the truth.
Hold up, hold up! Is Pat even the narrator of Silver Linings? It’s probably more accurate to say that the story’s narrator tells the story through Pat’s experience, his consciousness.
(whiny voice—Mr. Big Shot, Mr. Big Shot, can you talk about something else now?)
The story is Pat’s voice, mostly Pat’s voice—there are also those things the style of the novel conveys, like the chapter titles.
It’s Pat’s voice, and like all of us humans, he’s sometimes in error. It’s an interesting puzzle, best beloved. The protagonist is telling a story that the reader increasingly comes to realize is in error—which implies there is another, truer story that’s conveyed somehow.
Pat’s voice says: “…and then there is my writing, which is mostly daily memoirs like this one, so that Nikki will be able to read about my life and know exactly what I’ve been up to since apart time began. (my memory started to slip in the bad place because of the drugs, so I began writing down everything that happens to me, keeping track of what I will need to tell Nikki when apart time concludes, to catch her up on my life. But the doctors…confiscated everything I wrote before I came home, so I had to start over.”
So Pat explains just what Silver Linings is, a way to communicate with Nikki, the implication being that it is a sanitized version for her consumption. He’s writing an account of his life but it is for her, it is not necessarily the truth. It’s what he wants her to believe. It emphasizes that he wants to get back together, that he’s doing all the things she wanted him to do—be in shape, read the books she taught.
The character of Pat is someone who believes he can make up for all his errors and get back the life he used to have. He idealizes Nikki and their life together.
So how does the reader come to realize that Pat is an unreliable narrator and that there is another, truer reality, a reality he must come to accept? (More on that next time).
It’s clear from the first chapter that Pat has been confined in a psychiatric hospital and is supposed to be taking medication. At the same time, he espouses his silver linings philosophy and idealization of Nikki. His mother gets him out—it’s said because good lawyers are involved who promise the court that Pat will be in outpatient therapy and take his meds.
Why is he in a psych hospital taking meds? Why does everyone there tell him that Nikki will not come back no matter what he does? If you have some conception about psych hospitals and mental health treatment, you might wonder at Pat’s grasp of reality and suspect that he is an unreliable narrator. If he is just this nice, positive guy who loves his wife, why did she leave him? And why is he in the hospital?
These are significant questions the reader starts to ask.
Once he’s home, Pat’s conception of things shifts, his idealization of Nikki slips. He reads the books she assigns to her students to read (she’s a high school teacher), and is upset by Sylvia Plath and Ernest Hemingway. In his view, neither are creators of silver linings. Why, he wonders, would Nikki teach such depressing stuff to kids?
Other characters, his friend Tiffany, his mother, Ronnie, Jake, Dr. Patel, begin to challenge his view.
The Sister Sailor Mouth chapter contains a fine example. Pat reacts violently at a Philadelphia Eagle’s game, losing his temper and assaulting a Giants fan who had assaulted his brother, Jake, but is terrified that Nikki will be angry at his behavior. He talks first with his new friend Tiffany about it, and her reaction is swift and profane.
“Fuck Nikki,” Tiffany says. “The Giants fan sounds like a total prick, as do your brother and your friend Scott. You didn’t start the fight. You only defended yourself. And if Nikki can’t deal with that, if Nikki won’t support you when you are feeling down, then I say fuck her.”
Pat says, “Don’t you ever talk about my wife like that.”
“Your wife, huh…You mean your wife, Nikki, who abandoned you while you were recovering in a mental institution. Why isn’t your wife, Nikki, sitting here with you now, Pat? Think about it. Why are you eating fucking raisin bran with me? All you ever think about is pleasing Nikki, and yet your precious Nikki doesn’t seem to think about you at all.”
Pat reports, “I’m too shocked to speak.”
There are other cracks. Pat’s brother Jake reveals that Pat has been in the hospital for several years vs. the few months he thought. Pat’s mother gets drunk and tells him Nikki was not such a great wife.
Pat begins to transform, and as a result becomes less unreliable as a narrator. He is confronted with other character’s views and must struggle to render his own congruent. Instead of presenting a “sugar-coated” story for his ex-wife, he starts to focus in a more honest way on his own inner turmoil.