There is a tension between the real and the unreal in Black Rainbow, that serves both to further the plot and to develop a sense of the mysterious within the text. The setting that Wendt creates in his story is at once disorienting and disarming; it is hard to get a grip on reality when we as readers lack a starting point that we might truly believe. From the beginning of Black Rainbow, our sense of the real is challenged, changed, and contradicted. And as we read on, the reality that Wendt presents is so ephemeral that to draw any immediate conclusions about the text or its meaning seems a bit rash. We simply don't know much about reality as Wendt sees it, except that he invites us to think awfully hard about its possible limits and interpretations.
That being said, however, there is real depth to the character of the protagonist that illuminates what I think we safely label the power of self-deception. The text operates on at least two distinct levels, for while the protagonist attempts to identify the real from the unreal in the world around him, on a more personal level he also searches for clues as to his own identity. Though we follow along with the protagonist in the plot-at-large, I think it is important reflect on his voyage of personal self-discovery.
The protagonist visits a hairdresser, and sees an image of a self in the mirror that he had not seen in a decade. And though that might be a somewhat regular occurrence for some people, the new style is soon built upon with new clothes, fit "for adventures and dangers". All of this comes after a voice whispers to our protagonist that it is time for a new personality. A few chapters on, after the protagonist has rescued John from the hunters, the protagonist tells John that it was not he who killed, but someone else. John jests that this describes a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde scenario, but the protagonist doesn't seem to have much time for jest at that point. He seems to have some genuine concerns about who he is, and questions about just what he is capable of doing.
The Jekyll and Hyde comparison is telling. The apparent aims of the Tribunal are to erase history/herstory, and to free qualified persons from past actions, whether good or bad. If we are to assume that the Tribunal has largely succeeded in their aims, then the profusion of literary references throughout the text ought not to surprise. Absent any genuine personal history, our protagonist fashions multiple identities from past works of fiction. He is the pseudonymous Elmore Leonard, a James Bond, a Hercule Poirot. Other members of society clearly do the same. They relate through discussions of Hammet, references to Kafka, and Jekylls and Hydes. A society wiped of its history cannot remove the psychological need for binding, thematic elements in the formation of a personality. Without a personal history, it might be possible to become anyone; but there is no escape from the need to be someone. The characters in Black Rainbow--especially that of the protagonist--might vacillate from one literary or film character to another, but they are incapable of ignoring the need for a concrete identity. The power of self-deception is great, but ultimately any attempt to fashion the real from the unreal is going to fail.