Saturday, January 26, 2013

Informing Narrative

A few weeks ago, we watched The Informant! This movie is often quite funny, with a touch of the surreal, but what struck me most was the narrative structure. Through first person narration from Matt Damon's character (based on the real life Mark Whitacre), we slowly learn about events that he has kept hidden from both the other movie characters and us, the faithful viewer.

The Informant! has an unreliable narrator 
and a hidden layer of events...
Photo Source

The first hint of secret-keeping comes at the beginning, when the FBI arrives at Damon/Whitacre's company to investigate a possible mole situation. As part of this investigation, the FBI needs to tap the phone lines in Damon/Whitacre's home. On the night the special agent comes over to get the phone tap set up, we see Damon/Whitacre and his wife having a tense conversation, regarding whether or not Damon/Whitacre is going to be honest and tell the agent about this other "thing." They seem to be talking about something bigger than the mole/phone tap situation. As if they have been discussing this matter off screen for weeks, months. Maybe years.

The phone is tapped, the agent in the driveway about to leave. After a few more "If you don't say anything, I will" whispers with his wife, Damon/Whitacre stops the agent and asks if they can speak privately in the agent's car. At this point, we viewers are on edge. Due to all the hush-hush, just-be- honest talk with the wife, we know something big is about to be revealed. The tension is heightened as we realize that a sub-current of plot has been stealthily running under the "primary" issue (the mole) we thought we were supposed to pay attention to. The secrecy also lends a realism to the characters, as if Damon/Whitacre and his wife had truly been going about their lives before the movie started (to make things more complex, they had, as these characters are based on actual people) - having conversations and sharing secrets that we never got to listen in on.

The first hint of secret-keeping 
begins with a conversation between husband and wife
Photo Source
In the car, Damon/Whitacre reveals to the special agent that he and other company executives have been working with competitors to fix the price of lysine. (Don't ask me to explain what lysine is, I really have no idea. As best as I could gather, in the movie, it was an industrially produced corn by-product found in manufactured food, something like high fructose corn syrup.)

As the movie progresses, the viewer gets caught up in the lysine price-fixing scandal via Damon/Whitacre's actions and inner thoughts. We see Damon/Whitacre going undercover for the FBI, helping them record tapes and video of illegal activities. Price-fixing and an impending FBI bust seems to be the plot, what we are meant to focus on. But gradually - ever so slowly at first - the movie reveals that other events have occurred simultaneously to the price-fixing investigation. Events we had no way of knowing about because the camera didn't show them to us; because Damon/Whitacre didn't reveal them to the other characters onscreen; and because the movie never allowed Damon/Whitacre to let us in on the secrets. According to Wikipedia, Roger Ebert had this to say about the movie's layering: "The Informant! is fascinating in the way it reveals two levels of events, not always visible to each other or to the audience."

I'm very interested in using this type of narrative technique in my own writing. In The Informant!, the main device used is an unreliable narrator, who we realize hasn't been telling us everything, even within the inner monologues the movie gives us access to. Maybe he is incapable of telling himself the truth (but that's a whole separate plot point). Though I find unreliable narrators very appealing, I am most interested in having concrete events as parts of a story, writing about them through the character(s), but not necessarily coming out point-blank to tell the reader exactly what that event was/is. Facts and memories so engrained in the character - such an integral part of their own story - that they need no self-reference. And a first-person narration/self-reference would be the only means the reader has for receiving the story. However, within my writing, I do want to drop enough "clues" to give the reader footing to accurately infer what the event being written about was/is.

Can you trust my narration in this post? Just watch The Informant! and let me know if any of this rings true...


  1. One of the reasons I like Poe is his affinity for unreliable narrators!

    1. I haven't read Poe in ages! I will have to get on that!