Still Alice: The Power of an Unreliable Narrator

Greetings! Bit of a delay there — long holiday weekend plus a simulated bar exam put me on the outs for a bit. Anyway: the continuation of my review of “Still Alice” the wonderfully thought-provoking book by Lisa Genova.

In an earlier review I looked in particular to the theme of self-identity, and how the protagonist deals with her evolving sense of self. The second half of the book veers away from that theme — as Alice’s mental state deteriorates further, she comes to accept Alzheimer’s and to live with it, as she refuses to let her disease define her. On the one hand, the novel remains very much about Alice: her relationships with her family, with work, and her attempts to maintain independence. But in another sense, as she becomes less reliable as a narrator, the focus necessarily trusts to the characters that we can trust: largely her semi-estranged actress daughter and her husband. The first half of the book is mostly Alice dealing with a degenerative disease: the second half it is her husband, John, who must struggle. There’s a clear partition between the two halves: when Alice, still lucid 90% of the time, sets up a suicide plan. A set of five questions, and if she can’t answer them, she’s to go to her computer, open a file, and follow the instructions. The first half, in which self-identity rules, she prefers to die than to lose that self of sense: in the second half, the option of suicide never rises again in Alice’s mind.

There’s a theme of love that runs through the second half. As Alice’s mind deteriorates, her relationship with her daughter actually strengthens. Stripped of her academic and intellectual sense of superiority, Alice is able to share with her daughter the things that interest both of them: stories, characters, plays and relationships. They see beyond their struggles. Her daughter moves to the East Coast to spend time with Alice: she believes in loving her mother unconditionally, disability and all. Alice is no longer able to put this into words, which only makes the relationship feel stronger to the reader. Alice doesn’t tell us that she loves Lydia, or that Lydia loves her — she doesn’t have the ability to communicate those complex relationships. Instead, the reader is left to infer it, by Lydia’s own actions and deeds. The first half of the novel, while interesting, fails in the oft-cited advice to writers to “show, and not tell.” But once we lose our narrator, showing is the only option left.

In direct contrast to Lydia’s acceptance is Alice’s husband, John, who can’t accept that this disease is destroying his wife. There’s no doubt that he loves his wife — just as it is shown in Lydia’s actions, it is shown in his: at first he cuts back hours at work, he takes up running so that Alice can safely run, he reminds her to take pills and accompanies her around town. There is no doubt that he loves Alice — but he is unable to fully commit to the woman that she becomes as Alzheimer’s tears her apart. For most of the novel, I alternated between pity for him and anger — after all, marriage vows are “in sickness and in health” and at points he seems to abandon his wife.

Therein lies the power of the unreliable narrator, and after concluding the book, I had to peruse my bookshelf to find another examples of it. It wasn’t hard to find: in fact, most of my favorite books contain unreliable narrators, from “The Great Gatsby” to “The Sound and the Fury” (and, let’s be honest, nearly every first person novel written by Faulkner): there’s “To Kill a Mockinbird,” “Catcher and the Rye,” “Heart of Darkness,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Lolita,” and more recent works like “Choke,” “Atonement,”  and “Super Sad True Love Story.” And it made me wonder why it is that these novels, where we can’t fully believe any opinion or bias on the page, are some of the greatest works ever written.

And I suppose it comes back to that trope: Show, Don’t Tell. When the narrator is unreliable, whether because of infancy, mental defect, or character defect (bar exam terms filtering in, sorry about that!) it engages the reader. We can’t sit back and let our eyes wander: we have to question everything. In “To Kill a Mockingbird” Scout is too young to understand xenophobia, and how deep racism runs — she doesn’t condemn it, because she doesn’t understand it, and it saves the novel from potential preachiness — all of the inferences are formed in the reader’s mind, and not in the narrator’s.

Faulkner’s dysfunctional families come across as dysfunctional because the reader sees it, even when the characters don’t, even when they think everything is normal. Claustrophobia builds in “The Sound and the Fury” as a composite of the characters who think they’re free, and the ones who know they aren’t — only the reader knows that every single unfortunate person is trapped. Some authors use the unreliable narrator to further a theme (see, once again, Faulkner, or Ian McEwan) while others use the unreliable narrator to build dramatic tension (in a fantastic example in young adult literature, Harry’s persistent distatse and hatred for Snape — an impartial reader knows the potion teacher isn’t evil, but Harry can never see it). In “Still Alice” the technique is used on these two foil characters, though in the end the theme of love resolves.

And here’s the spoiler point — don’t read any further if you haven’t actually read “Still Alice” — is there is a moment, in the book, delightfully hidden, where the reader is keyed in to John’s character. There are mentions in the later half of the book when John tells his children that “they don’t know everything” but it’s so unclear what he is referring to — is he just pointing out that they haven’t lived with their mother, or they haven’t known her their entire lives, or they aren’t with her 24/7. Later on, however, it’s revealed that, relatively early on, John found that suicide note. Alice, entirely unreliable at this point, and barely able to remember her own family, is unable to tell us: it comes out, however, when John asks her the five questions she’s supposed to use to remember. Alice, of course, can no longer remember the answers to any of them.

It’s a shot to the gut for the reader. Past events are put back into perspective; a few incidents when Alice was “looking for something,” the mysterious destruction of her Blackberry, John’s pulling away. How does one deal with a situation like that? Knowing that your spouse, who you’ve lived with and loved for 40 years, would rather die than lose her sense of self: and then watching as she does just that, powerless to stop it. John is the one character with the power to carry through with his wife’s final, lucid wishes — but he doesn’t. Looking at it beyond the shadow cast by debates over euthanasia, and the legality of assisted-suicide. . .that’s the question I was left with. Was John’s act (or lack thereof) an ultimate act of love, or of cowardice?

Anyway, in the end, it’s a thought-provoking and interesting read. It’s not the best-written, and the language is far less than evocative, but the themes and content are fantastic, and worthy of a college morality seminar. Those of you who lead Book Clubs, here’s a novel ripe with topics for discussion, and for those looking for a summer read, while the content is deep, the writing is sparse and easily digested.

About splashfromabove

I believe firmly that through reflection, we gain in appreciation. My blog is all about taking a step back from what I read, view, or discover, and looking at it slightly askance.
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