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Unreliable Narrators
January 22, 2014 10:15 AM   Subscribe

“It’s still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it. But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.”

Listicle from LitReactor; more suggestions in the comments, with House of Leaves being mentioned more than once.
posted by Halloween Jack (70 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
Pretty much all of Martin Amis' narrators are unreliable, one way or another.
posted by notyou at 10:18 AM on January 22 [1 favorite]


Ever-inscrutable ain't-give-a-damn-what-you-think Lucy Snowe from Villette!
posted by erlking at 10:24 AM on January 22 [4 favorites]


I like unreliable narrators in nonfiction, especially those who are supposedly telling their own story. Nothing tickles me so much as a bullshit memoir.

My favorite is “I Fucked Alec Baldwin in The Ass!” by Dessarae Bradford.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 10:44 AM on January 22 [3 favorites]


I love unreliable narrators. They remind me of me (if you can believe that!). But this article left out all my favorites: H. H. in Hesse's Journey to the East, John Dowell in Ford's The Good Soldier, Jacob Horner in Barth's The End of the Road, and George in David Thomson's Suspects, just to name a few. And how can any list of UNs leave out the UN who revolutionized a genre, Dr Sheppard in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd?
posted by ubiquity at 10:46 AM on January 22 [5 favorites]


I have a vague memory of a description of a novel. It was written in the first person, and at one point the narrator says "I'm worried that these pages might fall into the wrong hands, so I've gone back over what I've already written and deleted every mention of my real purpose for being here". Does anyone know what I'm talking about?
posted by baf at 10:51 AM on January 22 [1 favorite]


I just had the thought that perhaps Twilight becomes a dark and nuanced study of a tortured young woman's attempts to maintain her sanity by weaving her own fantastic narrative of the horrifying events around her, if you imagine Bella to be an unreliable narrator.

I'm never going to check this, though, so be my guest.
posted by Navelgazer at 10:52 AM on January 22 [3 favorites]


Colin Powell. The Cheneys. A bunch of corporate statesmen. Anyone with the NSA. Bill Kristol and his dad.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 10:53 AM on January 22


It's a great device when done well, but often leaves me with a sense of tedious futility. I'm looking at you, Dan Simmons' Drood.
posted by zamboni at 10:55 AM on January 22 [8 favorites]


I just had the thought that perhaps Twilight becomes a dark and nuanced study of a tortured young woman's attempts to maintain her sanity by weaving her own fantastic narrative of the horrifying events around her, if you imagine Bella to be an unreliable narrator.

The Bella Jar?

I'll show myself out
posted by threeants at 11:01 AM on January 22 [28 favorites]


What, no Joker? "Something like that happened to me, you know. I... I'm not exactly sure what it was. Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another... If I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!" --- The Killing Joke
posted by SPrintF at 11:04 AM on January 22 [1 favorite]


You’d think a kid who walks around calling everyone else “phony” would be the most authentic dude you’ve ever met
wait



what
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 11:07 AM on January 22 [4 favorites]


Aren't all narrerators unreliable?
posted by milestogo at 11:17 AM on January 22 [2 favorites]


How the fuck does a search of that page (or this one!) for the word "Wolfe" yield zero results?
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 11:19 AM on January 22 [5 favorites]


SHADE/KINBOTE 2014
CHANGE YOU CAN'T BELIEVE IN
posted by RogerB at 11:21 AM on January 22 [17 favorites]


Yeah, there needs to be a Microsoft Wizard that pops up if you type "Lolita" and "Unreliable Narrators" and says:

"It looks like you're making a list if books with unreliable narrators but you forgot to put Pale Fire before Lolita."
posted by straight at 11:24 AM on January 22 [8 favorites]


Really, you should just put "Nabokov, Vladimir Vladimirovitch, Collected Novels," wherever you would put any one of them on a list.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 11:28 AM on January 22 [2 favorites]


What, no Joker?

How the fuck does a search of that page (or this one!) for the word "Wolfe" yield zero results?

Yeah, there needs to be a Microsoft Wizard that pops up if you type "Lolita" and "Unreliable Narrators" and says:

"It looks like you're making a list if books with unreliable narrators but you forgot to put Pale Fire before Lolita."






Perhaps the person making the list is… unreliable.
posted by zamboni at 11:31 AM on January 22 [9 favorites]


Ooh, I nominate In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O'Brien. The novel tells us several different versions of what happens one night but doesn't ever make clear what the "real" one is.
posted by aka burlap at 11:33 AM on January 22 [1 favorite]


Courtney Cox's Asshole by Jill Soloway. Sounds pretty unreliable to me. Damn fine story though. Could very easily be true. I bet it is, mostly.

"Anyway, she's out of town at this retreat called Tree of Life where for twenty thousand dollars, you totally definitely for sure get to see God. They also give you enemas. So I was finally supposed to get a little me-time, but now this whole ass debacle has taken over. I don't know how it started, but there's a rumor going around Hollywood that Courtney Cox bleaches her asshole."
posted by Zack_Replica at 11:38 AM on January 22


I know these are basically non-genre works but I think a mention of Severian would have been worthwhile.
posted by Doleful Creature at 11:40 AM on January 22 [3 favorites]


Shutter Island
posted by Kirth Gerson at 11:43 AM on January 22 [4 favorites]


Gene Wolfe is masterful with unreliable narrators. Both the Book of the New Son and the Fifth Head of Cerberus are beautiful examples of the genre.
posted by Proofs and Refutations at 11:44 AM on January 22 [2 favorites]


As a current example, I'll put forward Caitlin Kiernan's The Drowning Girl. Or The Red Tree. Or most of Kiernan, actually. And mentioning Kiernan reminds me immediately of Shirley Jackson and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which really should have been on the list.
posted by tyllwin at 11:44 AM on January 22 [2 favorites]


Oh, and sorry for the double post, but no House of Leaves?
posted by tyllwin at 11:45 AM on January 22 [2 favorites]


Why are unreliable narrators so obsessed with celebrity anuses? (Anae? Ani??)
posted by onlyconnect at 11:47 AM on January 22 [1 favorite]


Iain Banks opened "Transition" with a bit about this, saying that he's an inaccurate narrator, but if you believe whatever you read, you deserve whatever you get.
posted by mhoye at 11:50 AM on January 22


And, as Iain M. Banks, he has unreliable narrators in many if not most of the Culture novels, but I'm not going to say which ones.

See, I don't like even identifying a book as having an unreliable narrator, because one of the joys of the genre is slowly discovering that you can't quite trust your tour guide.

Anyway, my two additions to the list are Tarquin Winot in The Debt To Pleasure by John Lanchester, and Freddy Montgomery in The Book Of Evidence by John Banville.

If you read either, try knowing as little about the books when you go in. There are no Big Twists to spoil, exactly, but I think both books read better without any foreknowledge. I'd even skip the blurb on the back.

(This is especially true for Book Of Evidence; I suppose I'm rather dense, but on my first reading I didn't get that Freddy was meant to be unreliable... The final exchange of the novel just floored me.)
posted by Ian A.T. at 11:55 AM on January 22 [5 favorites]


Blueeyedboy by Joanne Harris does a pretty good job with its unreliable narrator as well.
posted by Proofs and Refutations at 11:56 AM on January 22


And then there's Umineko no Naku Koro ni where the narrator who's narrating the (possibly several) unreliable narrator(s) who are writing from the standpoint of an unreliable narrator who is evaluating his own unreliable narration is unreliable.
posted by charred husk at 11:56 AM on January 22 [1 favorite]


I'm fond of Christopher Priest's unreliable narrators, specifically those in The Affirmation and The Glamour (though I despised the ending to the latter).
posted by komara at 12:00 PM on January 22 [1 favorite]


The Bible?
posted by gottabefunky at 12:02 PM on January 22 [4 favorites]


And, as Iain M. Banks, he has unreliable narrators in many if not most of the Culture novels, but I'm not going to say which ones.

I'm going to pretend one of them was Matter so I can stop being so depressed about it.
posted by mittens at 12:02 PM on January 22 [3 favorites]


Aren't all narrerators unreliable?

doubly so for any autobiography. Seriously. I can immensely enjoy a good one but I know my own story (the one I tell versus the one I've lived) well enough to know that even if the narrator of an autobiography isn't outright lying, he's definitely doing a pile of filtering and selecting.

"It all started the day the monkeys attacked."

No it didn't. It started when you were born, or if you're a pro-lifer, the moment you were conceived, or if you're an evolutionist, with the big bang (or whatever).
posted by philip-random at 12:03 PM on January 22


No mention of Wittgenstein's Mistress, which is one of the better unreliable narrator tales I've read.

I do love unreliable narrators. I read Gone Girl this weekend and I'm a little ashamed of how much I liked it.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:10 PM on January 22


(This is especially true for Book Of Evidence; I suppose I'm rather dense, but on my first reading I didn't get that Freddy was meant to be unreliable... The final exchange of the novel just floored me.)

The ending of The Book of Evidence disappointed me. I had read good reviews of Banville's work, and they all recommended that book as his best. To me, Freddie's unreliability was simultaneously obvious, because his manner was so theatrically self-righteous, and unsatisfying, because it never gave me a keyhole through which to see the reality it locked away. Not to mention that the last little speech amounts to "How much of it was true? All of it. None of it. [And then something else that I've forgotten but which made the rhetoric sound good]" which read to me like Unreliable Narration For Dummies because, again, Freddie buries the real story too deep. As a result, it felt cheap to suddenly cast doubt on the reality of the story he had told.

Compare Freddie to Humbert Humbert or Charles Kinbote, both of whom contradict themselves and ludicrously misinterpret scenes they otherwise narrate correctly throughout their respective novels, and he looks thin.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 12:11 PM on January 22 [1 favorite]


This strikes me about many of T. C. Boyle's interesting but oddly shifty protagonists.
posted by ovvl at 12:12 PM on January 22


Aren't all narrerators unreliable?

doubly so for any autobiography.


'Unreliable narrator' in this context doesn't refer to the historicity or hermeneutic of a work but a specific literary device...
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:12 PM on January 22 [5 favorites]


Iain Pears' An Instance of the Fingerpost is a nice example of this. Four narratives of varying reliability, and the story gets the reader into a skeptical frame of mind such that even the more reliable narrators become suspect.
posted by Pistache at 12:17 PM on January 22 [5 favorites]


even if the narrator of an autobiography isn't outright lying, he's definitely doing a pile of filtering and selecting

I think this really first sank in when I read Losing My Virginity.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 12:19 PM on January 22


Oooh! Liar, by Justine Larbalestier. This Wikipedia link is safe, but almost anything else will certainly contain severe spoilers.
posted by Gorgik at 12:23 PM on January 22 [2 favorites]


Freddie's unreliability was simultaneously obvious, because his manner was so theatrically self-righteous, and unsatisfying, because it never gave me a keyhole through which to see the reality it locked away

This is a completely accurate characterization, but I still think it's off the mark in one way: Banville's signature shtick/mode of narration isn't really unreliability, but undecidability. When we talk about "unreliable" narration what we usually mean is something like knowably, detectably lying; it's a particular kind of puzzle or mystery, with all the readerly pleasures attendant on coming up with the solution. But Banville's favorite kind of narrator is more like a bullshitter (in the Harry Frankfurt sense), someone who's often indifferent to or disregarding of the truth of the situation they're narrating. The pleasure of reading isn't in figuring out the deep, buried truth of the matter, which is only sometimes possible, but in going along for the ride, skating on the surface of the deceptions and self-deceptions — hence the emphasis on acting and performance. It's a perfect contrast to somebody like Gene Wolfe, who uses basically the same Nabokovian toolkit to construct elaborate narrative logic puzzles, but without allowing even a whiff of ambiguity.

Anyhow, if you thought Book of Evidence was bad on this score, I recommend never under any circumstances reading Ghosts or Eclipse. (You might give Shroud a chance, though. It's a lot more straightforward on the level of narration while remaining emotionally, intellectually, and aesthetically complex.)
posted by RogerB at 12:35 PM on January 22 [1 favorite]


The definitive unreliable narrator, as far as I'm concerned, is, as ubiquity suggests above, John Dowell in The Good Soldier, which is a truly remarkable novel.
posted by Dr. Wu at 12:40 PM on January 22 [1 favorite]


doubly so for any autobiography.

Samuel R. Delany in his excellent The Motion of Light in Water, talks about the problems of separating objective fact from the stories his has built up through repetition (events eliding and so on) and concludes the section rather unhappily concluding that maybe he isn't the best person to write his autobiography. His The Mad Man (now that would make a TV series...) and Dhalgren have great unreliable narrators as well.
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:41 PM on January 22 [1 favorite]


I also enjoyed that, in the game Final Fantasy VII, the player colludes in the narrator's unreliability by playing through scenes that did not happen exactly that way, something that may be unique to games -- you are not told about unreliable events, nor shown unreliable events, you actually do things on the screen that don't happen that way in the game's objective reality.
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:43 PM on January 22 [4 favorites]


you actually do things on the screen that don't happen that way in the game's objective reality.

A famous take on this in interactive fiction is Andrew Plotkin's "Spider and Web".
posted by stebulus at 12:57 PM on January 22 [4 favorites]


RogerB, I like that description of Banville. Part of my disappointment must have come from my false belief that Banville had promised me a logic game when he'd created an effete yet murderous narrator and given over much of the book to verbal virtuosity and purple prose. Nabokov's influence weighs on writers and readers alike.

On preview: A famous take on this in interactive fiction is Andrew Plotkin's "Spider and Web".

Holy crap, yes. I couldn't solve it without a walkthrough - I'm not that smart - but I loved that twist.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 1:00 PM on January 22 [1 favorite]


Wait, let's go back to the nineteenth century! Robert Wringhim from James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) is a great one. (James Robertson's The Testament of Gideon Mack, which rewrites Private Memoirs, also has an extremely interesting unreliable narrator.) Any random Robert Browning dramatic monologue will have a speaker pulling a fast one (the be-all-and-end-all being The Ring and The Book, where every narrator is skewing things in some way). Henry James' The Turn of the Screw is an interesting edge case, since there's no agreement on whether the narrator is telling the truth (help! ghosts!) or is massively deluded (help! scary governess!). In contemporary fiction, I like Patrick McGrath's unreliable narrators--if McGrath's name is on the book, then something is wrong somewhere with the narration.
posted by thomas j wise at 1:09 PM on January 22 [1 favorite]


The Turn of the Screw. (Or is she?)
posted by Mocata at 1:10 PM on January 22 [4 favorites]


Beaten to it!
posted by Mocata at 1:11 PM on January 22


Thanks to MeFi's own bearwife for organizing the MetaChat book club reading of Lolita a few years ago; you can see the discussion here. Talk about an unreliable narrator! He even elides the girl's actual name so that she lives in our imagination not as Delores or Dolly or Lo, but by the name he imposes on the fantasy creature, the "nymphet" he's created in his imagination.

Part of Lolita's power springs from Humbert's acknowledgement of his own damning acts and desires, while his tone of smug satisfaction betrays his bedrock assumption that the reader sympathizes with him. That book is a masterful trap of narrator tone and content, a shifting creeping living thing that winds around you like a vine.
posted by Elsa at 1:49 PM on January 22 [1 favorite]


C'mon -- Nick freaking Carraway!

When it comes to contemporary novels, one of the ways postmodernism / metafiction has manifested itself in the best writers of the last 50 years is to take for granted and use as raw material the essential unreliability of almost any person's account of a story.

How the fuck does a search of that page (or this one!) for the word "Wolfe" yield zero results?

I love Gene Wolfe as much as about anyone but don't necessarily expect him to pop up on mainstream linkbait listicles. I'll also add here that I was about to bring up Christopher Priest, who is one of my favorites and is up there with Wolfe for literary speculative fiction that's not always as straightforward as it might seem. Also, a generation younger, Adam Roberts, but being a thoughtful literary writer, Roberts kind of falls into the pomo category I was talking about above. (As does Iain Banks when he's doing first person.)

The use of an unreliable narrator in science fiction arguably goes all the way back to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
posted by aught at 1:54 PM on January 22


Oooh! Liar, by Justine Larbalestier. This Wikipedia link is safe, but almost anything else will certainly contain severe spoilers.

Yes, this is the best example of unreliable narration ever, because it pretty much doesn't resolve into anything. It's so much fun reading goodreads reviews (don't, if you haven't read it) because the teenaged readers can't handle that lack of resolution at all.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:57 PM on January 22


> Shutter Island

In the book, for sure, and then Scorsese's film extended that. [self-link] "The stylized cuts, routinely and intentionally creating blips in the continuity, contribute to this sense of disjointed reality. Rather than an unreliable narrator, we are presented with an entire unreliable narrative." I really enjoyed the film's pulpy, B-movie texture and tone.

Emma Donoghue's Room, which is mentioned in the FPP article, knocked me out. It's narrated by a five-year-old for whom [no spoilers in this comment] the world he lives in is perfectly normal. The dawning realization of what I was reading gave me the actual chills. DO NOT LOOK AT THE WIKIPEDIA ENTRY, which is headed by a gigantic spoiler.
posted by Elsa at 2:13 PM on January 22 [2 favorites]


"FRED MADISON: I like to remember things my own way.
ED: What do you mean by that?
FRED MADISON: How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happened."
-David Lynch, Lost Highway
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 2:24 PM on January 22 [2 favorites]


DON'T MAKE ME THINK ABOUT LOST HIGHWAY AFTER DARK!
posted by Elsa at 2:27 PM on January 22


I mean: I shouldn't think about Lost Highway after dark. Anyone who tells you I screamed at someone for mentioning it after dark is obviously an unreliable narrator.
posted by Elsa at 2:28 PM on January 22 [4 favorites]


Can we really trust Lou Ford from The Killer Inside Me? What about the guy from Heart of Darkness?

Is any first person narrator reliable?
posted by Pudhoho at 3:12 PM on January 22


Came for Hogg!

Was not disappointed.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 3:23 PM on January 22


What about the guy from Heart of Darkness?

I think that's a good illustration of the difference. Sure, any narrator sees only what he sees, and misses what he doesn't, and is unreliable in the sense that that he's not providing a perfect account of everything that happened. But Conrad clearly wants us to take Marlow at his word, to accept his narrative as a more-or-less accurate depiction of events, and not to wonder whether Kurtz was really just someone Marlow made up, or whether Marlow had even been up-river at all. Marlow is a prime example of a reliable narrator, and Conrad uses him in several books for that purpose.
posted by ubiquity at 3:46 PM on January 22 [2 favorites]


Unreliable narrators usually drive me crazy, but Life of Pi has made me reconsider.
posted by eye of newt at 6:12 PM on January 22 [2 favorites]


Ok, i only vaguely remember the Great Gatsby, but how is Nick Carraway an unreliable narrator?
posted by storybored at 8:42 PM on January 22


I know his unreliability is debatable, but my favorite would have to be Ishmael.

C'mon, he feels the need to tell you he's reliable, he won't even tell you his real name, at one point he says "I'm going to tell you the same story I told these Catalan sailors once", he shifts to an omniscient viewpoint so you might overlook that he seems to be unlikely witness to a lot of key action and even at one point Starbuck's private thoughts.

Personally, I think Ishmael is just Melville himself, glorifying his short career as a whaler by weaving in a loose adaptation of the story of the Essex, piling outright lie on top of exaggeration as he regales a table of rubes in a Pittsfield barroom. The start of Chapter 3, where he rambles about the dark painting is just Melville's drunken justification for his filthy lies.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 9:06 PM on January 22


Ok, i only vaguely remember the Great Gatsby, but how is Nick Carraway an unreliable narrator?


He tells us on the first page that he doesn't make judgments about other people, but really he judges them all throughout the book. He calls Jordan "incurably dishonest" and "careless" for example.

There's also this section (ellipses are present in the book):

'Come to lunch some day,' he suggested, as we groaned down the elevator.
'Where?'
'Anywhere.'
'Keep your hands off the lever,' snapped the elevator boy.
'I beg your pardon,' said Mr McKee with dignity, 'I didn't know I was touching it.'
'All right,' I agreed, 'I'll be glad to.'
. . . I was standing beside his bed and he was sitting up between the sheets, clad in his underwear, with a great portfolio in his hands.
“Beauty and the Beast…Loneliness…Old Grocery House…Brook’n Bridge….”
Then I was lying half asleep in the cold lower level of the Pennsylvania Station, staring at the morningTribune, and waiting for the four o’clock train.


Where Nick has clearly just elided over a one-night-stand with Mr McKee.

Anyway, if you're gonna talk about books with great unreliable narrators, you have to add McEwan's Atonement. That book guts you. Life of Pi is also a great call
posted by Solon and Thanks at 9:57 PM on January 22 [7 favorites]


'Keep your hands off the lever,' snapped the elevator boy.
'I beg your pardon,' said Mr McKee with dignity, 'I didn't know I was touching it.'


This is like one of those pictures that look like one thing until one day you see another thing and can't unsee it. Brilliant.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 2:36 AM on January 23 [3 favorites]


Oh shit. Atonement. Yeah, masterful.
posted by notyou at 6:52 AM on January 23 [1 favorite]


'Keep your hands off the lever,' snapped the elevator boy.
'I beg your pardon,' said Mr McKee with dignity, 'I didn't know I was touching it.'


... I am suddenly so disappointed in every single one of my English teachers, yes, even you, Mister W. I studied this book three different years in three different classes (we moved a lot) and learned next to nothing about it.
posted by Elsa at 9:08 AM on January 23 [1 favorite]


Was Nick Carraway gay? from Salon.
posted by onlyconnect at 10:17 AM on January 23 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I mentioned it to my husband, who said, essentially, "Yup." And then even the most cursory Google suggests that I'm the only person in the literate world (OTHER THAN EVERY TEACHER I EVER HAD) who didn't notice that.

I mean, I was aware of the question "Is Nick Carraway gay?" but I'd never seen this particularly evocative passage about the elevator lever pointed out.
posted by Elsa at 11:51 AM on January 23 [1 favorite]


I didn't notice it either, but then I was the Commonwealth's Most Sheltered High-Schooler at the time I first read it, and I wasn't a careful reader, so I would have skimmed right over the ellipsis between the elevator and the bedroom. The more overtly sexual descriptions of men went over my head, too, and I'm not sure I would have caught them even today.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 12:47 PM on January 23 [1 favorite]


Holy smoke! Thank you Solon for that elucidation. Definitely tiime for a re-read.
posted by storybored at 7:56 PM on January 24 [1 favorite]


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