In Praise of the Oblivious Narrator: Two Book Recommendations

how_to_sharpen_pencilsTo my mind, the greatest shortcoming of the electric pencil sharpener is not its limited utility, but the way it alienates its user from the pencil-sharpening process. In a culture that prizes openness and accountability, this device remains a defiantly closed system; the ultimate black box; a windowless abbatoir.

The unreliable narrator can be an effective literary device, whether the unreliability stems from a weakness for rationalization (Humbert Humbert) or temporary impairment (Venya on his way to Petushki). But for comic writing, few things work as well as the oblivious narrator, the one who takes him or herself and surrounding situation completely seriously when any other person (e.g., the reader) would double over in laughter.

A friend who accompanied me to what I judged the second most-boring museum in the world (The Pencil Museum in the Lake District) recently did me the kindness of mailing me one such book: David Rees’ dead-on, dead-pan guide to the artisanal craft of pencil sharpening. The quote above is an example of the portentous tone of the book, in which an emotionally stunted weirdo who has devoted way, way, way too much time and thought to pencil sharpening dispenses wisdom regarding his craft. I think I pulled a gut muscle reading it and if you like this sort of humor, you’d do well to check it out.

bookAnother book that is just as funny in the same way is my favorite Washington D.C. satire: The Columnist by Jeffrey Frank. The narrator is political journalist Brandon Sladder, a self-involved, self-serious jackass who addresses the reader with the evident intention to impress. He invites us into what he considers the high-minded, well-informed Washington insider life that he thinks he leads, but the result is that pretty much everyone but him recognizes that he is an empty-headed, shallow hanger-on. It’s wickedly delightful and if you know our nation’s capital, painfully familiar at the same time. As with Rees’ book, if you like this style of comic writing, you will be richly entertained by The Columnist.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

15 thoughts on “In Praise of the Oblivious Narrator: Two Book Recommendations”

  1. Read and enjoyed The Columnist several years ago. I didn’t realize it was fiction — thanks for setting me straight.

  2. Rees has done some brilliantly deadpan videos on the subject:

    Speaking of unreliable narrators: Did anyone else first meet Holden Caulfield as an adult rather than a high-school student? I get the idea that teenagers mostly see him as a sympathetic character, but when I read the book he seemed like a cruelly on-the-nose portrait of a clueless, self-absorbed teen who’s not even a tiny bit in control or aware of his emotional state. I wonder if that’s a common reaction among people who never got around to reading that book in school and picked it up for the first time a bit later in life.

    1. …I read the book he seemed like a cruelly on-the-nose portrait of a clueless, self-absorbed teen…

      Interesting. I’ve never read the book. But apparently Holden was an Ayn Rand reader(!). Perhaps if the Holden character was allowed to run like Rabbit into sequels, he’d have evolved into the spitting image of a modern 220-pound Libertarian blathering on about his usurped “freedoms” to carry high-powered weaponry. As it is we are left with just the first two acts, or as Shakespeare put it: At first the infant “mewling and puking” in his nurse’s arms, and then the “whining schoolboy” with his “shiny morning face”.

    2. I had much the same reaction when I read Catcher in the Rye as an adult. I had first read it as a teenager. Like most teenagers, I liked it. I re-read it as a young adult–say mid-20’s. At that age, I had much of the cruelty of youth, but less self-absorption. On the re-reading, I found the book disgusting, for reasons much like Laertes’. I wanted to punch Holden Caulfield in the face. I’m much older now and less cruel, but I don’t think I could bring myself to read it a third time.

      Many fine adults were Randroids as teenage boys. They grew out of it. (I still can’t believe that Randroid girls exist, although I have heard credible accounts to the contrary.) But you might be right about Holden Caulfield.

      1. “I wanted to punch Holden Caulfield in the face.”

        I’d been struggling for a way to describe the way the book made me feel, and that right there is just perfect.

    3. That’s what I thought of Holden when I first read the book as a teen. Ditto on wanting to see him get punched in the face.

  3. I hadn’t heard of Frank’s book, and at first thought it might be an autobiographical novel with a Marty Stu hero (like Bill O’Reilly’s fiction) which Keith was only pretending to take as a brilliant bit of satire.

  4. ” … if you like this style of comic writing, you will be richly entertained by The Columnist.”

    Paraphrasing A. Lincoln (or Artemus Ward or Mark Twain) because I cannot find the original at the moment: if you are the sort of person who enjoys this style of entertainment, then a book like this will appeal to someone of your taste.

  5. The Columnist is one of the very rare novels that I read when it was new. I’d recommend it to anyone with a sense of humor. The great classics of the oblivious narrator are Diary of a Nobody and Augustus Carp, Esq., By Himself: Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man, the former being a rather gentle satire and the latter a brutal, slashing one. A very different sort of narrator, mostly oblivious but with just enough self-awareness to intervene in his own narrative and produce some of the funniest fiction I’ve ever read, is Gerald Samper, in three comic masterpieces by James Hamilton-Paterson. (The first, Cooking with Fernet Branca, actually has two oblivious narrators.) I keep hoping he’ll write a fourth, but perhaps leaving his audience wanting more is a good strategy.

  6. If you like this sort of thing I highly recommend Zeno’s Conscience by Italo Svevo. That guy’s rhetorical control (in translation) is amazing. In every sentence and paragraph, the narrator is a little bit self-aware and hilariously deluded.

  7. Are you sure Rees isn’t in on the joke? John Hodgman, of the Daily Show, the Apple commercial (he’s the PC) and NYT magazine fame – well known for his deadpan riffs similar to the tone of the highlighted quote – wrote the foreword. That could imply that Rees intended his book to be taken the same way people are supposed to take Hodgman’s mock-serious disquisitions on weighty matters. But, it would be hilarious (though perhaps cruel) if Hodgman wrote a foreword intended as a joke, but Rees, taking himself and his subject matter too seriously, thought it was intended to be taken straight.

      1. Yes, that’s exactly what I was doing. Now pardon me while I go out and buy some new glasses. I’ve been having a little trouble with reading comprehension.

  8. Hey Steve! Website guy!!?? Are you here?

    Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a function that preserved book recommendations? With categories like “oblivious narrator,” and so forth?

    I don’t about other people, but I find it hard to find book recommenders I trust. Whereas, you-all here are solid gold, imho.

    What I do now is, I copy and paste them and stash elsewhere. But if some clever person came up with an easier way, well that would be just dandy.

    Otoh, I suppose the goal here *isn’t* to become a portal. Sigh.

  9. Kazuo Ishiguro (Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go, etc.) has based most of his career on the device of the oblivious narrator, although it’s used to produce tragedy not comedy

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