After reading a memoir excerpt about a drug addict, who was jealous of his peer, I began wondering if the author is intending to be unreliable. The memoir's account was practically as drunk as the author in the original context. That seems fitting considering it was a memoir that included drug addiction. Is it important for the narrator to be more ethical and self aware at the later time? His account of his peer was misrepresentative and unethically vexatious, but the overall personal journey was well described. Should the author recant the views formed in his earlier state?
A memoir does not need to have a consistent reliable narrator.
First off, what is a memoir, and how does it differ from a historical novel and how does it differ from a textbook?
Dictionary.com defines the word thusly:
- a record of events written by a person having intimate knowledge of them and based on personal observation.
- Usually memoirs.
a. an account of one's personal life and experiences; autobiography.
b. the published record of the proceedings of a group or organization, as of a learned society.
- a biography or biographical sketch.
A memoir is written from personal observations. A historical novel is fiction set in a historic context; a textbook is a collection of facts. A memoir is neither of those.
A memoir, in my view, is supposed to give you an accurate feel of what the experience was like. To give you a glimpse of what it would be like if you had been there. To show what the author was going through, and how they felt.
Whether or not the author's perception of things was factual - given that it was influenced by the effects of drugs - is irrelevant. What matters is that it accurately portrays what the experience was like for the author.
Ultimately, in a memoir, the actual facts and what actually happened is less useful than how the author perceived it at the time. Because how the author perceived it at the time is the only way that we can, first of all, get an accurate feel of what the situation was like from their perspective; and second, it helps to understand actions taken by understanding what the author was thinking.
So, no: a memoir does not always need to have a perfectly reliable narrator, because that's not the point of a memoir.
Memoirs are by definition subjective, so they definitely can have an air of self-awareness associated with them. Three that come to mind are Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography, Frederick Exley's Notes from a Fan and William Borroughs' Junkie. In Franklin, the feeling is more like a Horatio Alger dime novel that a real life. He seems more intent on showing the correct method of developing his moral life than chronicling the actual events. I'm not sure how much he expected the reader to see this.
Exley explicitly subtitled his novel as "A Fictional Memoir". He freely embellished his own life in an attempt to give the feeling of what his life was like and to give better narrative cohesion.
Burroughs has a distanced view of his life and feels like a comment on it as well.
Once you accept Exley's "fictional memoir" stance you can start thinking of autobiographical fiction that often has a strong self-awareness associated with it. I think of examples such as A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, or Ellison's Invisible Man.