Unreliable Narrators Writing Article Number 6 from the Archive
As readers we tend to be on the side of the narrator. We trust what he or she says – we have no one else to tell us what happened so the story they tell is THE story. And then our assumptions are overturned. We thought we knew where we were and wham! we discover we are in different terrain altogether. Or maybe that realisation grows slowly, a creeping doubt, and we aren’t sure if we are being too clever by half, or if the penny has dropped for other readers a couple of chapters earlier.
Or sometimes it’s clear from the start that the narrator has a warped idea of reality, or doesn’t fully appreciate what’s going on. Or is a liar, plain and simple.
It’s a literary device capable of immense variety and it’s one I never tire of reading.
Here’s my five favourite in – da! dah! – reverse order.
5 Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.
Talk about packing a punch, the opening doesn’t allow us to settle comfortably back in the chair even for a moment. We are told straightaway that we are in the company of someone with no moral compass, no sense of right or wrong. A few lines on and we realise that murder is not the real story at all, but paedophilia, something that was rarely discussed even in academic papers back in 1955. It was unmentionable and unthinkable and here Nabokov is with a first person account, making us walk hand in hand with Humbert Humbert into a story that we don’t want to read. It’s an extraordinary novel not least because at no point is the reader able to relate to the main character, or feel that his way of thinking is understandable at any level, yet the quality of the writing allows us to travel together for 80,000+ words .
4 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
I find people confusing.
This is for two main reasons.
The first main reason is that people do a lot of talking without using any words. Siobhan that if you raise one eyebrow it can mean a lot f the different things. It can mean “I want to do sex with you’ and it can also mean ‘I think what you just said was stupid.’…The second main reason is that people often talk in metaphors…and when I try and make a picture of a phrase in my head it just confuses me because imagining an apple in someone’s eye doesn’t have anything to do with liking someone a lot…
The Curious Incident was published in 2003 in separate editions for adults and children. The first person narrator is Christopher John Francis Boone, a 15-year-old boy who describes himself as “a mathematician with some behavioural difficulties”. Although his condition is not named in the book, the blurb refers to Asperger’s Syndrome and high-functioning autism. In 2009, Haddon wrote in his blog that it is not a book “about Asperger’s….if anything it’s a novel about difference, about being an outsider, about seeing the world in a surprising and revealing way.”
3 The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith
I procured and sowed some half-hardy annuals in what I fancy will be a warm, sunny border. I thought of a joke, and called out Carrie. Carrie came out rather testy, I thought. I said: ‘I have just discovered we have got a lodging-house.’ She replied: ‘How do you mean?’ I said: ‘Look at the boarders.’ Carrie said: ‘Is that all you wanted me for?’ I said: ‘Any other time you would have laughed at my little pleasantry.’ Carrie said: ‘Certainly – at any other time, but not when I am busy in the house.’
The Nobody in question is Charles Pooter, a middle aged clerk living in Holloway, North London with his wife Carrie and (sometimes) his wayward adult son Lupin Originally serialised in Punch magazine in the late 1880s, it has not been out of print since. It’s a wonderful gentle comedy – described as The Office of the 19th century – and you can sample more at http://www.diaryofanobody.net/
2 Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
The first rule about fight club is you don’t talk about fight club.
The second rule about fight club is you don’t talk about fight club.
You don’t say anything because fight club exists only in the hours between when fight club starts and when fight club ends.
… that’s the third rule of fight club, when someone says stop or goes limp, even if he’s just faking it, the fight is over.
Only two guys to a fight. One fight at a time. They fight without shirts or shoes. The fights go on as long as they have to. Those are the other rules of fight club.
The novel was published in 1996 and the film – starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton – came out in 2000. The main character is a young man who is never named. He is in a well-paid, but stressful, job and as a result suffers from acute insomnia. He finds a cure by attending self-help groups for people suffering from serious and terminal conditions. Then he makes friends with a mysterious man called Tyler Durden and together they set up an underground bare knuckle fighting society. The sequel Fight Club 2 was published in May 2015 as a comic book.
And number one is – ta-rah – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie. Published in 1926 and 87 years later it was voted the best crime novel ever, although when it first came out it was criticised for breaking all the rules. I’m not going to say any more, read it if you haven’t already.
CHAPTER 1 Dr Sheppard at the Breakfast Table
Mrs Ferrars died on the night of the 16th17th September – a Thursday. I was sent for at eight o’clock on the morning of Friday the 17th. There was nothing to be done. She had been dead some hours.
It was just a few minutes after nine when I reached home once more. I opened the front door with my latchkey, and purposely delayed a few moments in the hall, hanging up my hat and the light overcoat that I had deemed a wise precaution against the chill of an early autumn morning. To tell the truth, I was considerably upset and worried. I am not going to pretend that at that moment I foresaw the events of the next few weeks. I emphatically did not do so.
But my instinct told me that there were stirring times ahead.
From the dining-room on my left there came the rattle of tea-cups and the short, dry cough of my sister Caroline.
‘Is that you, James?’ she called.
An unnecessary question, since who else could it be? To tell the truth, it was precisely my sister Caroline who was the cause of my few minutes’ delay. The motto of the mongoose family, so Mr Kipling tells us, is: ‘Go and find out.’ If Caroline ever adopts a crest, I should certainly suggest a mongoose rampant. One might omit the first part of the motto. Caroline can do any amount of finding out by sitting placidly at home. I don’t know how she manages it, but there it is. I suspect that the servants and the tradesmen constitute her Intelligence Corps. When she goes out, it is not to gather in information, but to spread it. At that, too, she is amazingly expert.
Have I missed anyone you think should be included here? Share your favourite unreliable narrator or tell us about a story/novel you’ve written where the main character is not to be trusted.
This article first appeared on November 15 2015