If we met in person, and I told you an elaborate story filled with characters, conflict, and a generally interesting plot, you’d have a natural instinct to trust what I’m saying. Why? Because you just met me, I seem trustworthy, and, well, you’d have no reason not to.
That’s exactly why the “unreliable narrator” literary device works so well.
We tend to believe the narrator, or the person telling the story. The voice we hear first is the one we trust the most. Only then do we gradually discover a vulnerability, whether it’s a drug addiction, a mental illness, a compulsion to lie, or some sort of an inability to tell the story in a way that reflects reality. In other words, the narrator’s credibility has been compromised.
You’ve experienced an “unreliable narrator” many times. The Girl on the Train. Fight Club. Rebecca. Hell, Edgar Allen Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart begins with the narrator attempting to convince the reader that he is sane. (Never trust a narrator who tries to convince you he’s sane.)
Anyway, I recently read David Carr’s harrowing memoir, The Night of The Gun, and it addresses the inherent unreliability of one’s own memory. Carr was a drug addict for a significant period of time, so he goes on a fact-finding mission to uncover the truth about the events of his own life. He writes:
“In the Ebbinghaus curve, or forgetting curve, ‘R’ stands for memory retention, ‘s’ is the relative strength of memory and ‘t’ is time. The power of a memory can be built through repetition, but it is the memory we are recalling when we speak, not the event.
“And stories are annealed in the telling, edited by turns each time they are recalled … People remember what they can live with more often than how they lived.”
In his quest for the absolute truth, Carr discovers that there are many versions of it depending on who you ask. Hollywood producer Robert Evans once wrote: "There are three sides to every story: yours, mine, and the truth."
Here’s the plot twist: We’re all unreliable narrators of our lives. We distort, we deny, we embellish — yet we have absolute trust in our tangled beliefs. Very few of us rigorously fact-check and verify the stories we tell ourselves. We listen to the main character rather than turning to the people who play a role in our narratives. Our viewpoint isn’t the only one that matters, and in many cases, it might be deluded or just plain wrong.
I’ll leave you with this clip from the movie, Life Itself, in which Olivia Wilde’s character Abby writes her thesis on the “unreliable narrator.” In the following scene, she claims she’ll argue that “every narrator by its very definition is unreliable because when you tell a story, there’s always an essential distance between the story and the telling of said story, right? Therefore, every story that’s ever been told has an unreliable narrator.”
PS: The winner of the Think Week was Packy McCormick. He loves books and has a great newsletter you can check out here. Thank you again to everyone who participated! I’m going to do this again in the near future. In the meantime, reply to this email if you want to see a list of the books I’ve chosen to send.
And now, the profiles of the week:
— The master of cutthroat capitalism [**HIGHLY RECOMMEND**]
— The CEO seeking global domination
— The style-quantifying astrophysicists of Silicon Valley
— The rich kids giving away their inheritances
— The modern-day explorer
— The artist building a fashion powerhouse
— The God of soccer
— The Nike of beauty
— The billion-dollar high-speed internet scam
👉 If you enjoy reading profiles of the most interesting people and companies, tweet to tell others about it:
PEOPLE TO KNOW.
The master of cutthroat capitalism: Jeff Bezos is the world’s richest man, and Amazon is America’s second-largest private employer. As regulators hope to reign in the retail behemoth, it is preparing to fight back. This profile gives us a fascinating look at the inner-workings of the company, and it begs the question: Is Amazon truly unstoppable? (The New Yorker)
“Amazon is learning that a flywheel, once spinning, is very hard to stop.”
The CEO seeking global domination: Another profile on Amazon? Yes, but this one focuses primarily on CEO Jeff Bezos. Bezos’s ventures are by now so large and varied that it is difficult to truly comprehend the nature of his empire, much less the end point of his ambitions. This piece attempts to answer the ever-so-important question: “What happens when one man is able to impose his values on the rest of us?” (The Atlantic)
“To live in a world of his creation is to live in a world of his biases and predilections.”
The style-quantifying astrophysicists of Silicon Valley: Chris Moody is an astrophysicist who builds galaxy simulations, using supercomputers to model the way the universe expands and how galaxies crash into one another. Now, he and his astrophysicist friends are pivoting to fashion by joining personal styling company Stitch Fix. For real. Here’s why a growing group of astrophysicists have stopped researching the cosmos to start building recommendation algorithms and data models for the tech industry. (Wired)
"It's fascinating to try to think of personal style as a science."
The rich kids giving away their inheritances: $32 trillion. That’s how much generational wealth will be transferred over the next 25 years. But an increasing number of wealthy individuals between the ages of 18 and 35 want no part of the family fortune, and they are formally vowing to give away most or all of their inherited money. (Town & Country Magazine)
“Everybody I grew up with is at least a doctor, lawyer, hedge fund manager, or corporate executive—and that has everything to do with how class privilege works and almost nothing to do with merit.”
The modern-day explorer: Sarah Marquis is redefining what it means to be a modern-day explorer. She’s a hiking specialist who spends months, sometimes even years, walking across scarcely traveled swaths of earth. From 2010 to 2013, she trekked 10,000 miles from Siberia to the Gobi Desert, then (after 13 days on a cargo ship) across Australia. She has camped in minus-30-degree cold and endured blizzards, sandstorms, mudslides, dengue fever, and an almost fatal tooth infection. Yet she has no plans to stop. (Outside Magazine)
"How does a restless person find a still spot in the world? How can a nomad make a home, that is at once sustaining and invigorating, not boring?"
The artist building a fashion powerhouse: Over the years, Rihanna has made her mark on music, design, beauty, and lingerie — and now she’s upending fashion at the highest levels. Fenty maison, the Paris-based line she founded with LVMH, makes Rihanna the first woman to create a brand for LVMH and the first black woman to lead a major luxury fashion house. It has also made her the wealthiest female musician in the world. Here’s what’s next. (Vogue)
“I’m not the face of my brand, but I am the muse, and my DNA has to run all the way through it.”
The God of soccer: As a player, Diego Maradona had been an all-mighty God—winner of the ’86 World Cup, scorer of legendary goals, one of soccer’s biggest stars. As a coach, he was perhaps most famous for telling a journalist to “suck it and go on sucking it” after Argentina’s national team managed to squeak into the 2010 World Cup. This profile delves into the two opposing sides of Diego Maradona. (The Ringer)
“Maradona offered to the Argentines a way out of their collective frustration. That’s why people love him. He is a divine figure.”
COMPANIES TO WATCH.
The Nike of beauty: If Emily Weiss is the cult leader, her followers worship at the altar of Glossier. The clean beauty startup just raised $100 million at a monstrous valuation of $1.2 billion. So now what? Weiss is busy playing the long game — and that involves expanding its flagship brand far beyond just beauty. (Vanity Fair)
“If you look at a company like Nike, I mean, that’s what is possible for our future. It’s just about how quickly can we get there, and in what order?”
The billion-dollar high-speed internet scam: Elizabeth Pierce co-founded Quintillion Subsea Holdings, a startup in Anchorage trying to build a trans-Arctic data cable that would improve web speeds for much of the planet. The mission captivated the public. Pierce raised $270 million in funding by impressing investors with her ability to rack up major telecom-services contracts — until they learned she was the only one who’d signed them. (Bloomberg)
“The question is not why Elizabeth did it, but rather, how did she think she’d get away with it?”
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