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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

Unreliable and Not In Control—Bad Combination

I have written about how Pat is an unreliable narrator in Silver Linings. The unnamed narrator presents Pat’s story as a sort of journal he eventually tries to send to his ex-wife Nikki, a journal which is a sort of instrument of propaganda, designed to convince Nikki to accept him again. However, cracks begin to appear in what Pat writes, the “journal” begins to contain passages that would probably not bring the “real” Nikki toward reconciliation—like Tiffany’s profane tirade we looked at last week. These are entries that Pat probably would not approve for his letters to Nikki, but they creep in anyway, showing the reader that Pat is not only unreliable in presenting the truth, but also not in full control of the narrative. Poor fellow.

By the way, fun fact—there are a number of famous unreliable narrators in literature. Don Quixote is a prime example.

We will examine what happens in the story—probably next week—but this time, I’d like to look at some of the assumptions the story makes and how this effects our reading.

There’s an implication that a separate “reality” exists as a background to Pat’s journal. His version of things is clearly not a reliable picture of the reality of the story and the characters in it. His is a very idiosyncratic version designed to influence, to paint a pretty picture of his resolve to “be kind rather than right.” We get a sense that the other characters do not necessarily share this world, that they inhabit a different version of reality. Tiffany is a prime example, as is Jake, Pat’s father, even his long-suffering mother. To varying degrees, they reject and challenge, and dis-confirm Pat’s world-view. There’s an implication that they are more correct, and that Pat is often delusional, yet they are not shown as being smarter or as not having problems. In fact, it’s clear that Tiffany is very troubled. Pat’s father is an alcoholic, abusive jerk. Dr. Patel, Pat’s psychiatrist, comes closest to being wise, but he is also shown letting Pat encounter him as a real person who loves professional football. This is part of the complexity of the story. It would be quite different if Pat met an unequivocally wise person who would present a more stable and “realistic” view of life to challenge Pat’s troubled one. But this doesn’t really happen—Tiffany is the one who finally cracks Pat’s delusions but she does it for her own reasons—she loves him and is jealous about his feelings for his ex-wife. The people in Pat’s life are all flawed humans with their own problems and agendas. His mother is pretty close to being self-less. But of course that’s her exact problem, and it causes her to be taken advantage of by the people she loves.

In any case, we the readers only have what we have, Pat’s unreliable version at first, and then a growing crush of disconfirmation. We have to imagine how things “really are,” and this pulls us in to the story. We read passages where I think, we feel sorry for Pat because it’s obvious how mistaken he is. We groan (causing raised eyebrows from our partners) when Pat returns to his “life as a movie with a happy ending” story. Contrast this with a story where everything is explained accurately, where the author makes all the characters mouth-pieces of her/his own agenda. An author who believes she/he is right and wishes to demonstrate this to the reader.

It’s part of the strength of Silver Linings that we become so involved with Pat’s character, wanting him to succeed. To truly find a silver lining. And of course, at the end, he does find a silver lining in Tiffany’s love, but it’s not a sweeping one that miraculously makes everything better. He must endure pain and loss to get to a better place, and at the end of the story, it’s clear that his struggle is not over. The ending is open.

‘Kay. Many of you have asked me to comment on the more formal elements of this fine book, and I will do so now.

In terms of the narrative structure of Silver Linings, we have a story told by an unreliable first-person narrator whose story is, of course, actually told by a nameless, faceless narrator entity who is able to be inside the protagonist’s head. Present tense is utilized throughout, along with some conditional passages that collapse time (making use of “she/he would” type of constructions). Adaptations of film techniques are used—the repetitive “montage” section that also collapses time. Frequent use of letters are used, which adds another layer to the text.

Reference is made to a number of other novels—because Pat is trying to read the books that Nikki teaches to her class. The Great Gatsby, The Scarlet Letter, A Farewell to Arms, and The Bell Jar are all described, and this cleverly provides a way for the Narrator to confront Pat’s delusions. These are all stories without happy endings—in Pat’s mind—and he angrily rejects them. However, the effect on the reader is to be shown that Pat is mistaken.

The narrator entity’s presence can also be seen in passages we have discussed where other characters intrude on and confront both Pat’s delusions and his composition of a propaganda type “Notebook” to win back his ex-wife. Also we have the chapter titles that seem to slyly question Pat’s rigid world and poke ironic fun at the events in the story.

“An Infinite Amount of Days Till My Inevitable Reunion With Nikki.”

“I Fear Him More Than Any Other Human Being.”

“Break Free of a Nimbostratus.”

Next week, we’ll look more at the ending of the story and how Pat’s character transforms. Till then, my dears.


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