Humans are the only animals that use stories to help make sense of the world. Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan argues that ‘we lead our lives as stories, and our identity is constructed both by the stories we tell ourselves and others about ourselves and by the master narratives that consciously or unconsciously serve as models for ours’ (2002:11). An inquiry into how humans construct stories is also an inquiry into reliable and unreliable narration, into identity, and into the relationship between author, text and reader. It goes to the root of what it means to be human.
In this paper these three aspects – (un)reliability, identity and the author-text-reader relationship—form a constellation that I trouble at. Specifically I’m interested in occasions when a narrator reliably tells a tale but suggests there are other versions of the same events that could be told, (by them or by other narrators), thereby adding complexity (unreliability) to their telling. If a story about a single event is ‘staged’ several times, in differing ways, does this mean the narrator is unreliable? Is there another way to categorize such stories other than through the binary categories of reliable and unreliable narration?
I use two texts to tease out my argument, one non-fictional—Patti Smith’s Just Kids (2010)—one fictional—a collaborative writing project, Strange Attractors, a post-dramatic theatre piece, written by sixteen Wollongong University students and myself. What links these two projects, apart from the subject matter, is an approach to staging story that calls attention to narrative purpose.
In this paper I argue that in our complex contemporary environment some writers and writing projects confound the notion of reliable and unreliable narration, intentionally shifting focus onto the purpose of a narrative and calling attention to the way identity is brought into existence through storytelling. An approach to narration that highlights narrative purpose and the way purpose shapes telling is important for understanding who we are as human beings but also goes some way to questioning the claim, prevalent in many civil institutions, that there is always a single true story to be told