narrator’s unreliability revealed through:
-external characters’ reactions
-evolution of narrator’s idea/obsession
Adam Haslett’s “Notes to My Biographer” from his 2002 collection You Are Not A Stranger Here provides a prime specimen of an unreliable narrator. The story’s chronic tension is that the narrator has a mental illness that has driven him away from his family, particularly his son Graham, who has inherited his disease. We know none of this at the beginning, however, as the narrator is on his way to see Graham (the acute tension) for the first time in four years. Haslett builds some credibility for his narrator as an important, forceful, and intelligent man of influence by his intermittently listing the eponymous biographer’s notes (though perhaps those reading closely will pick up on something a little off about him). Haslett then undermines this credibility with the persistence and obsession with a new idea the narrator has immediately before he reunites with Graham:
…for a bicycle capable of storing the energy generated on the downward slope in a small battery and releasing it through a handlebar control when needed on the uphill —a potential gold mine…
The details of the idea initially further the credibility of the narrator’s intelligence; this new idea is also part of the acute tension that will put pressure on the reunion with Graham:
“I’ve invented a new bicycle,” I say but this seems to reach him like news of some fresh death.
The bicycle is nicely selected as the object that will eventually expose the extent of the narrator’s mania to us: it’s all downhill from here (though, as per the narrator’s invention, we hope this downhill energy might generate something useful). We get other hints that something is off with the narrator when he mentions he won’t be returning the SAAB he borrowed from a relative, and when he orders champagne with a credit card the delivery guy is “naïve enough to accept,” clues that seem to point to him being some kind of scam artist, though we might revise this theory when we read his summary of Graham’s discussion with him re: the bike idea:
The chronic tension has officially reared its ugly head.
At dinner, we get more cues that things with the narrator are awry, and that the bicycle is somehow manifesting this:
“You’ll be riding my bicycle in three years,” I tell her. She draws back as though I had thrown a rat on the carpet.
The narrator meticulously notes (as has been the case with his imaginary biographer) how long the food takes to arrive, his volubility with the wait staff upsetting Graham:
“Stop that!” Graham says. I’ve reached the end of my tether with his passivity and freely ignore him.
They are ostensibly talking about his behavior in the restaurant, but we get a sense that it is all of the behavior this one incident is indicative of that Graham wants his father to stop. The narrator’s “reaching the end of his tether” with Graham (and vice versa), but he still declares he wants Graham to go in with him on the bicycle idea.
At this point, the narrator begins to note that other people are watching him, which he attributes to their spying on him, trying to steal his idea.
As I speak, I notice that others in the restaurant are turning to listen as well. It’s usually out of the corner of my eye that I see it, and the people disguise it well, returning to their conversations in what they probably think is convincing pantomime. The Westinghouse reindeer pops to mind. How ingenious they were to plant him there in the diner I ate at each Friday morning, knowing my affection for the Christmas myth, determined to steal my intellectual property.
This is the point it becomes clear to the reader that people are really staring because the narrator sounds crazy. The specificity of the details here reveals that he pretty much is. The details in his descriptions of the bike idea so far have seemed those of a competent if cocky engineer, who has now taken a sharp turn into paranoia. That he’s fully convinced someone planted a “Westinghouse reindeer” in a diner to mess with him shows us unequivocally he’s unstable (even though this Westinghouse reindeer is mentioned in passing in the list of biographer’s notes near the beginning of the story, it doesn’t yet raise such a red flag–the narrator isn’t totally agitated at the beginning, and doesn’t sound crazy). That he has the same conviction about this that he has about the bike idea undermines our faith in the bike idea and the mind that created it. It still might sound like a good idea, but we understand now he’s delusional:
I know the restaurant’s lousy with mountain bike executives.
This turning point occurs roughly a third of the way through the story—the unequivocal revelation of his instability is hardly the climax.
When they leave the restaurant, the narrator is still trying to convince Graham to go in on his bike idea, while Graham shakes his head. Telling Graham he needs to use the bathroom, the narrator ducks into a luxury hotel and procures an expensive suite. Finding out what he’s done, Graham says he’s out of control and has to start taking his meds for the sake of the family, trying to explain to him that his being off them is why no relatives wants to see him anymore. At this point we’re getting a clearer picture of the problems the narrator’s mania and his refusal to manage it have caused in the past.
From Graham’s haggard tear-stained appearance after this speech, the narrator imagines him as a corpse (seeming to symbolize in some way that his son is dead to him now) and cajoles him into the suite, Graham insisting, “’We can’t stay here,’” a symbolic declaration that applies in the larger sense to where they are as father and son, with the father alienating everyone by taking no responsibility for his own mental health. Amid Graham’s insistence, the narrator lets what we now understand to be a rare slice of reality in, as he thinks of “the eviction notices in Baltimore, the collection agencies, the smell of the apartment.” He also has memories of Graham as a child asking him not to leave for his business trips—becoming symbolic of what Graham is asking him now, the crisis of the acute tension: not to take leave of his senses, to take his medication. Through this memory of a request not to leave, we understand that the narrator implicitly understands what Graham is asking of him in the present.
The narrator then asks his son what it’s like to be gay, which Graham responds to with a rant about thinking his father was dead. The narrator tries to cheer him up with promises of all the glory the bike invention will bring, but for the first time actually seems to hear how crazy he sounds:
All of a sudden I don’t believe it myself and I can hear my own voice in the room, hear its dry pitch, and I’ve lost my train of thought…
Which then devolves into memories of Graham, how Graham would watch him make designs and imitate them, how Graham was the only one who understood him in his “world of possible objects.” He thinks how he doesn’t know how to say goodbye, which we intuit now is why he’s made this trip in the first place. Graham reveals that he’s worried his lover will leave him like his mother left his father and so he always takes his own medication. Now we understand that the chronic tension isn’t just that the narrator isn’t taking care of himself, but that he’s passed the issue onto his son. The narrator asks:
“But the fire, Graham? What about the fire?”
With this question he pretty much lays bare his priorities, that the fire of inspiration is more important to him than his family. He then shows Graham a diagram for another new invention: a door with multiple knobs. The space previously filled by a bicycle—that of a new invention that expresses his mania—turns into a door, symbolizing that the path of the narrator’s life, his fire, is now at an end, and he’s ready for the exit. It seems safe to presume no one will be cramming any meds down this throat, no matter how much Graham pleas.
After Graham falls asleep, the narrator scrawls a last note to his biographer:
Though some may accuse me of neglect, I have been consistent with the advice I always gave my children: never finish anything that bores you. Unfortunately, some of my children bored me. Graham never did. Please confirm this with him. He is the only one that meant anything to me.
He leaves the note for Graham so he will see “the truth,” then leaves, and the last sight he sees is “the shimmering pier jut[ting] into the vast darkness of the ocean like a burning ship launched into the night.” He’s been making notes to his biographer specifically because he’s ready to leave. We understand now that the purpose of the story’s inciting incident and acute tension, his meeting with Graham, was to say goodbye to the only child he cared about, the only one who shared his affliction and therefore understood him. The notes to his biographer may be exaggerated, but through them, by the end, the narrator has managed to communicate the truth. The notes don’t just serve to construct and deconstruct the narrator’s credibility, but come to figure critically in the plot. Haslett has managed to make a narrator who at first seems like a cocky jerk into someone utterly sympathetic by the end through the tragedy of his love for his son originating from the very thing that ensures their separation (that is, his illness).
The restaurant scene with the narrator being rude to the wait staff and trying to send things back recalls John Cheever’s “Reunion,” in which a young narrator is excited to be reunited with his estranged father for an afternoon. Throughout the story his excitement wanes as his father’s rudeness increases and they have to keep switching restaurants. By the end, the father’s revealed as a complete jerk; the story is one of how his son comes to understand who his father really is. Here, Haslett seems to have appropriated that jerk-father and attempted to explain why he’s such a jerk, but goes even further, facilitating some underlying connection between the father and son, despite the fact that present circumstances dictate an inevitable separation. If Cheever’s story is about the day I realized my father was a jerk, then Haslett’s might be the story about the father himself coming to understand he’s a jerk. “Reunion”’s line “as soon as I saw him I felt that he was my father, my flesh and blood, my future and my doom” could be the epigraph for Haslett’s piece, were it from Graham’s point of view.