Would I Lie to You?

actor adult business cards
Photo by Nikolay Ivanov on Pexels.com

On Thursday we had the second segment of Phisherman, in which our narrator let us into his home, more of his thought processes, and described various body sensations. But all of these are only surface periphery, and he has still stubbornly avoided sharing anything truly vulnerable. We don’t know what it is that makes him tick or what his real motivations are, and he adamantly refuses to tell us what he’s even feeling.

A narrator that has an adversarial relationship with the reader is not a new invention, but it still remains an interesting mechanic due to how it goes against the basic idea of what a story is. A story is supposed to be a way to share knowledge, to communicate, to bring to an understanding. Therefore an unreliable narrator seems that it would only make a story defeat itself in much the same way that telling lies defeats the natural purpose of communication.

Indeed almost every story begins with the assumption that the narrator is truthful and somewhat omniscient. Usually they know everything that is needed to communicate their tale accurately, and they will be used as the standard of truth that all else is measured against. Therefore when a narrator is not trustworthy it is something that has to be discovered. Bit by bit things just aren’t adding up, and finally there’s a breaking apart where our creeping suspicions become confirmed.

And it is in that moment of discovery that the self-defeating nature of an unreliable narrator is undone. When pulled off properly the communication that follows can actually become more true, due to its initial concealing nature. But don’t take my word for it, there have been some excellent stories which have proved this very point.

 

Fight Club)

Take, for example, the story in Fight Club. I’ve have not yet read the novel, but the film’s snappy, cynical dialogue was actually a direct influence on crafting Phisherman’s tone. Interestingly, this film starts by surprising us with just how brutally honest it is willing to be. We understand exactly how Edward Norton’s character feels about the media, society, and all the world’s various problems. He sees a lot to complain about, including of himself, and he doesn’t hold back in cutting down everything he despises.

But while that honesty is invigorating, the audience still gets the notion that something is being hidden from them. People occasionally treat Edward Norton’s character in a way that doesn’t make sense, and there are strange black-out periods that are entirely unaccounted for. It isn’t necessarily that we think our narrator is lying to us, just that he isn’t as in control of the situation as he should be. In the end it turns out to be both. He is lying to us, but he isn’t even aware of doing so.

In the final act the story reveals its secret, and we find out that our leading man is a far more complex individual than we had been led to believe. Certainly more than he, himself, had ever believed. Thus this tale is particularly interesting in that it features a narrator that is being duped right along with the audience. That “aha moment” where everything comes to light is even more of a shock to him than it is to us.

The takeaway here would be that the narrator does not have to always know when they are being unreliable. They might just be expressing the truth according to their limited understanding of it.

 

The Beginner’s Guide)

Another example of an unreliable narrator is that of the indie game called The Beginner’s Guide. This is a game that is unlike anything I’ve seen before, right from its initial moments. It opens with the game’s real-life creator giving you his real-life name and his real-life email address. It is incredibly, disarmingly honest, and leaves the player feeling a little embarrassed at just how far they being are invited into the creator’s personal space. But all of this is just a façade, and when it comes down things are only going to become more intimate.

The basic construct of the game is that the creator, Davey Wreden, wants to show you some small minigames that his friend “Coda” has made. These games are all quite short and about a very limited objective. They’re also very different, and feel less interested in providing compelling gameplay as being virtual art pieces that communicate an experience. For example a maze that is impossible to beat may not be very fun to play, but it recreates the sensation of being trapped that Coda was experiencing in his life at that time.

Then, at the end, Davey confesses that Coda actually hates him for sharing his games with the public like this. These weren’t meant to be put on display for everyone, they were very personal to Coda. Davey even admits that he has been altering the games, giving them glimmers of hope that he felt had been missing.

So clearly there was a deception here, and the player feels dirty for having been made an accomplice to violating Coda’s personal life. This might seem like it’s the “aha moment” of catching the unreliable narrator in the act, but there’s an even greater revelation still to uncover.

This one comes when you understand that Coda and Davey are not actually two different people, but rather two sides of the same individual. There’s plenty to suggest this fact within the game itself, but it is further confirmed by reading the blog posts that Davey Wreden has published about himself. He gets very personal and honest in those blogs, and they talk about his two conflicting interests: to be purely creative and also to feed his never-ending hunger for validation.

From his blog posts and this game we understand that “Coda” is the name that Davey has given to his muse, the part of him that provides him pure inspiration. But then there’s this other part of him, the public part, that tries to make those games more marketable and entertaining so that he can be praised for them. The more he does that, the more his private life is thrust into the limelight, and the more he starts to feel that honest creativity dying within him.

The Beginner’s Guide is very unique in that it makes the player believe it is being entirely honest, then convinces the player they have been deceived, and then let’s them discover it was actually being more honest than ever.

 

Truth Through Deception)

So obviously these are two very different examples of an unreliable narrator, however there is one aspect that they share, that of actually unveiling more as a result of their covering up.

If in Fight Club we had understood all the wrinkles of the main character from the outset, then we would not have experienced the same sense of confusion and foreboding that he was experiencing. He would have been wandering around scared and confused and we would have been waiting for him to catch up to our level. Being left in a place of uncertainty only better connected the audience to the lack of completeness he had been feeling the whole film long.

And as for The Beginner’s Guide, it could have been introduced as simply “here are two different sides of me,” but that would have lessened the sense of betrayal that we experienced at the end. By dividing the psyche into two individuals we better have this idea of a relationship, one which requires respect from one to another to survive. In this way this story is able to make its point that we know it would be unquestionably wrong to exploit another person, but why do we think it any better to exploit oneself?

This element makes for one of my favorite styles of unreliable narrator. Even though the narrator may not be telling you the truth about the details, they are informing you of other truths about themselves. This, however, is not the technique that I am utilizing for Phisherman. In fact I’ve decided to do the exact opposite to see how that affects the outcome.

Jake is being entirely honest about all of the details, and there is not going to be any sort of twist where he has a split personality or an imaginary friend. The deceit is one that he, himself, doesn’t recognize as a deceit because it is really a self-deceit. Jake has been able to omit his feelings from the story thus far because he is very practiced at numbing them, even to the point that he would doubt their existence. In the final section of the story we will have a moment where the pure terror that always lives beneath his surface finally rages to the forefront for all to see. My hope is that that moment of stark clarity will then color every scene that came before.

Come back Thursday to see how that works out. I’ll be waiting for you there!

Phisherman: Part Two

two black and brass colored keys with fob
Photo by Brett Jordan on Pexels.com

Part 1

Less than a week after I found Pete I found these keys. To be clear, I’m not always looking for trouble… but I will acknowledge it anytime it comes to me on its own. I’m just finishing up with my run, twelve laps around the local park, when I see something glinting at me from one of the benches. It’s keys: a ring with about three on them. House. Car. Something else, too.

I ignore them, continuing my jog as I turn this fact over in my mind. On the surface nothing immediate presents itself, but there’s no denying that there is a power here. What can be done with that, though? It’s just a set of random keys. Finding anything that they unlocked would be like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Even as I’m thinking that thought another part of my mind is pointing out that this is a small and local park. Pretty much no one ever drives here, they walk. Whoever left these is almost definitely local. Sure, there’s a couple hundred homes in the surrounding neighborhood, but already the haystack is getting smaller.

And while that thought is finishing its course my eyes are already roving. How many people are here right now? A young couple there…man and his dog there…that’s it. Doubtful the keys belong to any of them, if so they would have kept them pocketed while out on the lawn, not laying out on a bench. The sun is setting and all of them will be leaving soon. The place will be vacant.

Oh right, the sun is setting… so people will be going to sleep. That means the owner is probably already back home. They somehow got back in their house without realizing they had lost the keys? Could be. If a couple had come together, each with their own set of keys, then they might not notice if only one set disappeared. People get distracted by all sorts of things. Or maybe the went back into the house through the garage instead of the front door. Or maybe they have noticed the missing keys and are searching for them, but they visited too many places today and aren’t sure exactly where they left them. In any case, after a certain hour no one will be looking for these…

But again, what would I do with them? A hundred homes is still a lot. The car key will probably have a logo on it. If I know that I’m looking for a Honda or a Toyota I can start reducing candidates. Unless the car is in its garage…

Wait a second. Was it just a key, or a fob? I decide to run one more lap, all to once more jog past the keys. I come up to them and surreptitiously glance at them out of the corner of my eye. Fob! That’s definitely a key fob! And that means it has a lock button, and that means pressing it within a certain radius of its matching car results in it giving a little toot.

If my mind was racing before it’s full-on sprinting now.

What on earth are you going on about? I ask myself. You can’t break into a house!

Of course not, this is just a thought experiment, I protest. I just want to know what would be possible.

What would be possible?

Find the house, setup a camera watching the front door and garage, learn their comings and goings, enter when the house is vacant.

Stop! You’d be caught. You’d get arrested.

This is all just theory, remember? But you’re right, in this theory I would need some latex gloves, a hoodie and a mask. Also you would need to check for a doorbell camera.

The voice of reason insists that we’re going to too dangerous of places and need to leave. I peel away from the park and head for home. It doesn’t matter where I go physically, though, because my mind is still firmly back there. From my apartment I happen to have a great view of that park and I find myself constantly returning to my window, checking to see if anyone is going to retrieve the keys. No one ever comes.

During my restless pacing the sun completely sets. It’s night. People will be going to bed before long. I open my laptop and try to do some work, but after rereading the same email six times without paying it any attention I open a few new tabs on my browser.

I mean, are there even any cameras that could run all day on battery and remain inconspicuous?

bestbuy.com
gopro.com
bhphotovideo.com

In case you were wondering, turns out it is feasible, and there’s even a some options just waiting for me at a few of the local stores.

I get up, grab my keys, and head out into the night. I wouldn’t say that I have made a decision, more so I just stopped resisting the inevitable.

I’m in no particular rush, though, I’ve still got a few hours until the absolute dead of night and I’m sure not going to check on the keys until then. I get a cheap, greasy dinner from Taco Bell and then start my shopping. I take my time, comparing options and searching for DIY enhancements on my phone.

I end up deciding to get a common dash cam. They’re small, subtle, and can be rigged to run off a battery pack pretty easily. I select an RSC Nano. This model will take an SD card for storage, up to 64 gigs, which should hold as much as 8 hours of footage if it records at 17Mbps. Most importantly it can connect to my phone through an app and allow me to download the footage from my car while parked on the street. I don’t want to risk being seen tampering with this camera each day. That download is sure to take a while, but hopefully I’ll be able to scope out a subtle area once I see the place.

Next I go to a grocery store for matches, a can of beans, and a pair of scissors sharp enough to cut metal. Thanks to my friends at YouTube I’ve learned this is all I need to make a copy of a key.

I go home and watch some television to while away the last hour. I’m not paying any attention to it, though, and I might as well just switch it off and stare at the clock. At last it reads 1 AM, the time I’ve decided it’s safe to go out.

A few long, steadying breaths, then I leave into the night.

My heart is racing faster than it did during my entire run this afternoon. My hands are clammy and I keep switching them from swinging at my sides to shoved into my pockets. Down the street, to the park, up to the bench. I reach down, grab the keys in one smooth motion, and hurriedly duck back out of the light cast by the streetlamp above.

In the darkness I peer at the key fob and can just make out the white little logos on the buttons. I place my thumb over the one to lock the car and make for the nearest row of houses. I walk down the sidewalk on one side of the street, pressing the fob button as I pass each house. Then I cross over to the other side and do the same coming back the other way. Then I move on to the next street.

To help me pass the time I start doing the math in my head. It’s taking about six minutes to do both sides of a street. Ten streets an hour. I could keep this up until four, that would cover thirty streets. Seven-and-a-half blocks. Obviously at some point I’ve got to call it quits, but at that rate I’d say two, maybe three nights at most and I could cover the entire surrounding neighborhood.

Unless they really were from out-of-town. They might have been visiting family around here, they could have been geocaching, they could have…

Boop! Boop!

My heart skips a full three beats at the unmistakable chime of a car sounding from the garage nearest me. I start to walk away, then wonder if it might have been a coincidence. I push the lock button again.

Boop! Boop!

My ears are buzzing from all the blood pounding through my head as I resume my walking. Still I have the presence of mind to read the number off of the mailbox: 17462. I walk faster, straining to hear any noises coming from the house. The bedrooms would have been decently removed from the garage, further than a car beep would have been heard from… Right?

To my great relief nothing stirs from the home all the while as I come to the intersection of the next street and make a sharp turn, noting the name of the road I’ve just left: Oak Lane. I resist the urge to run. Though no one else is out at this time I don’t want to risk drawing attention to myself. I do power-walk, though, winding through one turn after another as if I’m being followed. In fact I do look over my shoulder a few times, but all that’s there is my shadow.

Every extra second out here is just that much more risk, and I won’t be able to breathe fully until I am done with this night.

I glide across an intersection to my apartment building and now I allow myself a sprint up the steps to my flat. I bolt the door, lock the knob, and slide the chain. I punch 17462 Oak Lane into a text editor my phone and then pull the keys out of my pocket. Car key, house key, gym key. I grip the house key as I move over to the kitchen table where the matches, scissors, tape, and metal ends of the can of beans are already waiting.

I light a match and heat up the key, then press it into the tape, transferring a perfect image of it onto it the clear plastic. That gets laid flat against the metal from the can, and using my scissors I carefully cut out the exact same shape. I do this a second time, stacking the two copy-keys on top of each other so that they are a similar thickness to the original. I press them down on the original house key, pressing firmly with my fingers until the groove that runs down its side is transferred over as well.

There. All that’s left is to return everything back to the way it was before, to remove any cause for suspicion or fear. I pocket the keys and grab a handkerchief, then stride back out into the night. Again I power-walk the whole way to the park, and as I go I vigorously rub the keys down with the handkerchief, obliterating any trace of fingerprints on them. It’s probably an unnecessary precaution, but I intend to reduce the risk as far as I possibly can…aside, you know, from actually not following through with this plan.

I reach that fateful park bench and deposit the keys silently in the same spot where I found them. One last time I go back to the apartment complex, up the steps, through the door, lock all of the locks, and at long last I lean against the wall and let out the breath I’ve been holding all night long.

Suddenly I feel tired, exhausted even, and I leave for bed. Everything else can wait until tomorrow.

*

The next day I return to the park under the guise of another run. I’m excited when I see that the keys have been removed from the park bench. It could be that someone else stole them or tried to find the owners, but I like to hope that the people at 17462 Oak Lane woke up the next day, discovered they were missing, retrieved them, and believe the whole incident was brief enough that it isn’t worth changing the locks on their door. Everything depends on that, and I’d say there’s a decent chance of it being true.

After the park I take a drive around the town, slowly rolling by the home in question. I scope out the area, noting a couple of bushes belonging to the neighbor across the street. A camera could be easily hidden in there with a wide enough view to track both the front door and the garage. I also take note of the cars parked along the sides of the street. There’s enough of them that it shouldn’t stand out too much when I join them to download the footage to my phone. Finally I also peer up at the front entrance and check for a doorbell camera. There is none.

Everything is working out perfectly for me. Or, when I consider how idiotic this entire scheme is, perhaps I should say working perfectly against me. Either way, I’m back on that street at 1 AM the next night, burying my camera in the bushes.

And now the routine begins. Early every morning I drive down the street, open the camera’s app, and tell it to start recording. Late in the evening I come back and download the footage, then go home to scrub through it, taking notes of everything I see.

On the very first day I become fully acquainted with the occupants of the house. Husband, wife, two daughters. Middle class, young family. The father seems to work in some office, based off of the casual-nice fare he always wears when he leaves at 7:47-ish each weekday. A little less than an hour later the wife leaves with the two daughters in tow and wearing scrubs. Presumably she drops them off at school and then goes to work at the hospital, coming back about 3:30, with the husband following a couple hours after that.

Once again: perfect.

The house is completely vacated all day long every weekday. I verify this over a few more days, of course, but there’s never any variation. I even check the weekend footage to verify that they don’t ever come out on a walk with some invalid that’s otherwise being cooped up indoors. All clear on that front. I never catch a glimpse of a dog or a cat, either.

All I have to do is pick a day.

But is that necessary? Haven’t you already consumed them enough? There’s a lot to glean about them from the video already.

Hmm, interesting question. What of these people themselves? Who are they? What makes them tick? What are their aspirations? Why do they live here? Why do they have two kids and not more or less? Why do they drive the two old Honda Civics that they do and not something else? Why do they forget their keys at parks?… I can observe a lot of things about them, but what of them?

The two daughters appear to be about six and eight. If they were the same age you would definitely think they were twins. Both with blond hair down to their shoulders and chubby cheeks. Well-fed, well-dressed, healthy. Well-liked, too, judging from all the friends that came to visit on Saturday. Comfortable, but not so fancy as to be stuck-up. They’re probably nice girls.

The mother is, in a word, tired. She’s yawning every time she rolls out in the morning, she’s rubbing her eyes when she comes home in the afternoon. No doubt she uses those few hours at the end of the day taking care of all the housework: cooking dinner, doing laundry, cleaning, etc. Physically…she’s not really my type, but I mean we’re talking a suburban mom here, what did you expect? Still… I suppose she’s pretty in her own way.

I don’t think the father likes his office job very much. When he leaves in the morning he always procrastinates, rushing back into the house for some forgotten item until eventually he has to race out in a hurry to not be late. He appears educated and capable enough to give his family a bigger home, so I can only assume it is his lack of passion at work that is holding him back. Whenever he comes home he looks so much more alive than when he leaves, and his daughters are always bounding out the door to meet him. They’re really happy when he comes home.

That still doesn’t mean he isn’t going to leave you one day, girls.

I’m going to hit their place tomorrow.

*

I acknowledged last Monday that Jake is an uncomfortable person, someone who does bad things and is entirely unrepentant about it. I suggested that perhaps there was more depth to him than met the eye, though.

In this section I tried to really sow the beginnings of this idea in the reader with how little Jake actually says about himself. He is quite talkative when it comes to critiquing other people, describing their little details, and chronicling a list of events. But he absolutely refuses to ever discuss himself. In his own words that is a lot of things being said about him, but not of him.

In the first section this absence might not have stood so much. It was fast-paced, plunging right into the hacking-action, and his quick banter was well-suited for deflecting closer inspection. But the longer you stay with him the more you find it bizarre to not have heard anything meaningful about him.

This sort of absence will hopefully suggest to most people some sort of hiding, a wound that needs to be covered. The evidence of that wound is further suggested by the selective way he critiques others. Apparently he is able to be tolerant, and even kind, to little girls and women, but we’ve now seen him unnecessarily cut down two men without reason.

This element of a narrator holding back information is, of course, not a new invention. This is the famous “unreliable narrator” where the storytelling might be as flawed and inconsistent as the voice behind it. On Monday I’d like to delve into this concept more, and then we’ll get the final act of Phisherman next Thursday.