Fiction Seminar: Carl Shuker

[Carl Shuker]

Why Trust the Storyteller?
An exploration of the narrative point of view in Shuker’s The Lazy Boys.

The Lazy Boys: a story of slow decline, initiated by early school bullying and Richie’s unwillingness to face his daemons such as his self-loathing and lack of commitment to change himself. This is further compounded by the lack of attention/help that his mates offer. His parents too, seem powerless to help.

The plot is driven by Richie’s actions, as it should be, and has a credible feel to it even though it is far from any experience we would encounter.

But did you notice how Richie told the story? Not how he told it but how he told it.

For me the most interesting aspect of this book is the point of view of the narration: everything is filtered through Richie. There are two exceptions: the letters Anna writes and the books Richie reads. We will look more closely at what work these are doing in a minute.

But questions remain. Did it really happen like that? How trustworthy is Richie as a narrator? The amount of time the reader spends inside Richie’s head is extraordinary but it is still Richie describing how he feels. We have only Richie’s word. And why would Richie recount such a tale? Would he do so by simply sticking to the facts?

Notice how Richie’s story is happening right now. The present tense is used. Why? It is more difficult to question the validity of something that is happening right now. The distance between the storyteller and the story is increased. The storyteller disappears into the action – this is not a told story, this is happening now – as if recounted in the third person. It becomes easy for the reader to forget that Richie is telling the story.

The reader is asked to get to know Richie, they are offered snippets of his formative years, the school days bullying and family holidays. We trust Richie even though he is not particularly likable. Elements in the story build trust and some work against believability. To Shuker’s credit the reader is not at any point delivered something that would cause them to say “no way – that would never happen”.

In order to build suspense and make the book an exciting out-of-the-ordinary read, extreme events need to occur. For these events to be believable we have to trust that Richie is not just spinning lies.

Increasing the believability is done in several ways. Anna’s letters (and to a lesser degree the books Richie reads) are written in the format of the text as Richie would have seen it. So the letters are a ‘thing’, they are real because they look like the letter and are word for word. There reader thinks the letters happened. Similarly with the murder books, excerpts are inserted into the novel in typeface that indicates they are cut from a real book. They are not part of Richie’s possibly less reliable ‘told story’.

Also supporting believability and our trust in Richie are very clear descriptions of certain remembered and current events. It has to be noted that the honesty of Richie is extreme. He has issues explaining to anyone how he is feeling but has no problem telling the reader that he has a wank most mornings. However he fails to mention that he nicked the gun from his dad until well after the fact. We are beginning to see the unreliable narrator. What else has happened that he has not told us?

The sense that Richie is unreliable begins to work its way in once the trust has been built somewhat. This has the effect of increasing the tension rather that throwing the reader out of the story (and it is a difficult thing to get the balance right). Gaps in conversation, things perceived that are unlikely but nonetheless real to Richie (like the imaginings of what his mates are thinking during the cricket watching and subsequent funnel drinking) all add to the sense that Richie may be slowly loosing it.

Richie’s reported conversation becomes more unreliable as the novel progresses. Are the blank “…” silences or pieces of conversation that he can’t remember or perhaps a slow progression from the former to the latter? The lack of tags in conversation suggests that this story is being told by a future Richie who is speaking out loud, almost acting it out. There is a further suggestion that it is an unreliable future Richie telling this tale when he screams “It’s not my fault you are dead” (p286) to the obviously alive Anna. Or perhaps Richie is just confused.

The recall of what Richie was thinking is often quite specific. It would seem that the clarity imbedded earlier in the story is needed to highlight the increasingly unreliable nature of the storyteller (or on a different level the increasingly distorted view of Richie). The erratic language towards the end (the repeated ‘ands’) demonstrates unreliability but Richie’s erratic behaviour adds credibility (it is what the reader expects). The two play nicely together.

It is possible to get sense of disbelief towards the end but the looming finish, fast action and extreme events urge the reader on. In retrospect it was strange that Anna did not go and get help after the rebuke at the flat. And surely Richie’s dad would have had his eye on the gun after Richie blew away the TV at home. If he noticed it missing he would have reacted in some way. But it is easy for the reader to put these things aside and say that there was no-one there to save Richie at his time of need – even if that was Richie needing the world to feel sorry for him.

One thing to note is that the final acts of violence seemed to fit with the path set by Richie. For me this was a disappointment. I saw here an opportunity for the human condition to be challenged in some small way. Something here that redeems Richie in the eye of the reader, something we can all connect with. Richie had the opportunity to make changes in his behaviour, changes he wanted to make (who was the Richie that Anna saw? Early in the novel Richie wanted to be that person [Letter p 45] and later he recognises a defining moment when he could make a change [p275]). But no – only sadness and disaster and a lack of knowing as to how much of the story was reality and how much Richie’s story.

Why was it written this way? Is it aimed at an experienced reader - because it is interesting, different and offers a perspective that is out of the ordinary? Did we like it? No. Why? Because it failed to uplift us, Richie did not make the right choice and by his own admission he had the chance to change, he knew it and failed to act.

This then draws attention to what we expect from literature. Mr Pip did not have a perfect end but there was hope in it. There is no hope in The Lazy Boys and this has the effect of either getting the book dismissed or really hitting home as a novel not just about Richie but about modern writing, unreliable narration and socially driven expectations of upbeat outcomes in popular fiction. Perhaps life just isn't pretty sometimes.

Perhaps note the list of influential novels that Carl gave Mary. At the top is the multi-layered writing of Pynchon.

- Ralph Springett

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