The Usual Suspects, I was absolutely stunned at the ending.** (See below if you're lost.) The trick at the end is a brilliant piece of storytelling — one which helped writer Christopher McQuarrie earn a well-deserved Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 1996. That film was my first real brush with the concept of the unreliable narrator.
Later, in a college literature class, we read Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire — a total mindf#$k of a novel that also employs the unreliable narrator trick. The reader has to decide whether what narrator Charles Kinbote is telling us is real or just delusional fantasy. Of course, Nabokov is also responsible for probably the most famous example of the unreliable narrator — Humbert Humbert in Lolita, who almost succeeds in convincing his audience that his pedophilia is perfectly normal.
The concept of the unreliable narrator is pretty self-explanatory. Whether via insanity or just simple misinterpretation of reality, the unreliable narrator gives us a myopic or slanted or just dead wrong account of events. Some readers are turned off by an unreliable narrator, arguing that it's a dirty trick because the narrator is generally all we have to know the story. We're not conditioned to consider that the story is taking place inside a larger fictional framework. We are trained to trust that narrator implicitly. After all, if we can't trust the storyteller, how are we supposed to really understand or enjoy this story?
Can you imagine the craft and skill necessary to write something like this? That's the real mind-boggler, and it must be why there are so few good examples of this narrative technique. But one recent example, and the reason why the unreliable narrator's been on my mind lately, is Ida Hattemer-Higgins' novel The History of History. We're never really sure how sane Margaret is — as she tries to come to grips with memories she can't consciously remember. If you're a fan of the unreliable narrator technique (or just great fiction in general), I can't recommend The History of History enough.
Are there other successful examples of the unreliable narrator you've come across? Anyone read Iain Pears' An Instance of the Fingerpost? I've had that novel on my shelf for years and never read it.
Is the unreliable narrator a technique you enjoy reading, or something of a turn-off?
**(The movie came out in 1995, so it's past the statute of limitations for a spoiler alert, I think — but it you don't remember or haven't seen it, Verbal Kint actually is Keyser Soze, and has been fabricating the story the entire time. And then, "And like that, he's gone.")