An Unreliable Narrator


The Cool Media of an Unreliable Narrator

John Fraim

The first person narration of a person who has escaped from a mental institution. Written in a questionable, unreliable voice of a first person narrator such as Billy Collins (“Collie”) in Jim Thompson’s 1955 noir classic, After Dark My Sweet. Our story opens much like the opening of Thompson’s story as the narrator has arrived at a bar after his escape from a mental institution. Only in our story, we do not know what type of institution it is.

This narrative form of unreliable narrator forces more reader participation in deciphering the meaning of the story. There are competing “personalities” for ownership of telling the story. Such is the case with most of the Jim Thompson novels I’ve read. The main character has some mental condition that holds two or more viewpoints of the world in perpetual holding patterns so that one viewpoint never is able to dominate for very long. They constantly battle each other in relating the narrative of the story.

The different narratives pull the reader into the story and ask he or she chose which narrative to believe. The reader is required to participate more in depth in cobbling their own narrative from the different voices. I am reminded here of a quote from Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media about Sir Francis Bacon, someone he gave much thought and study to:

“Francis Bacon never tired of contrasting hot and cool prose. Writing in ‘methods’ or complete packages, he contrasted with writing in aphorisms, or single observations such as ‘Revenge is a kind of wild justice.’ The passive consumer wants packages, but those, he suggested, who are concerned in pursuing knowledge and in seeking causes will resort to aphorisms, just because they are incomplete and require participation in depth.”

The idea of a complete packages and passive consumers is contrasted with incomplete packages requiring participation in depth. The two dichotomies serve as the basis for McLuhan’s distinction between “hot” and “cool” media. The media participant fills hot media with more information requiring less participation while cool media has less information requiring more participation.

For example, a hot medium would be a photograph or the radio while a cool medium would be a cartoon or a telephone. One can say in general that broadcast, one-way media such as television, newspapers and radios are hot media while interactive, two-way communication are cool media.

Yet one of the theories branching off from the idea of hot and cool media is that there also exist hot and cool devices within particular media. As an example, McLuhan defines print media of books as a hot media. But within this media, there are certain literary devices such as aphorisms that require participation when inserted within hot media. In effect, there can exist other cool literary devices such as paradox, metaphor and analogy within print narratives.

In addition to various literary devices employed within a narrative, the overall narrative voice can also be a device. One of the least explored types of narrative voice is the “unreliable narrator” developed by the crime writer Jim Thompson. It opened up a new narrative perspective and a new cool, participatory device within the hot media of books and print.

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