Monday, May 2, 2011

Who Can We Trust? A Look at Unreliable Narrators

The first time I saw the movie 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? 

I'd say that trying to understand what's going on from other intratextual clues is the enjoyment of such stories. You have to read between the lines, to interpret the "notes the author isn't playing." It's not always easy for the reader, especially because sometimes we have no reason to suspect the narrator is unreliable until some seminal event that clues us in. And then we have to re-look at the whole story in light of what we've just learned.

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.")


  1. Man, I love Pale Fire. And, no, I cannot imagine the skill and craft involved. I'm like an epileptic monkey pounding keys compared to writers like this.

  2. I recommend Pale Fire to everyone; it's great (and short so you can read it in an afternoon). An Instance of the Fingerpost is really good. You should certainly read it. Four narratives that discuss the same events from four different perspectives. One narrator is lying, one is mad, and the other two have political agendas. The whole thing is a fabulous puzzle, well-written and funny, too.

  3. Christopher Brookmyre's Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks is an example of this, and is the most exquisitely crafted book I've ever read. The narrator is dead, but I can't say any more than that.

  4. I love an unreliable narrator and really, every first person story must be, to some degree unreliable. The story has to be filtered through that character. And like you pointed out, figuring out what's actually going on based on intratextual clues is part of the fun.

  5. You should also read, if you haven't yet, Orhan Pamuk's My Name Is Red. It's like The Name of the Rose crossed with An Instance of the Fingerpost. Sort of.

  6. I think Red is right about all first person narrators being unreliable to a degree. However, most first person narrators are not trying to deceive the reader the way a true unreliable narrator is.

    I recommend The Tambourine Queen by Jane Gardem.

  7. I love an unreliable narrator, the psychology of it all. And thank you, Pale Fire has just been added to my TBR.

  8. Double Bind by Chris Bohjalian, I think fits the definition of an unreliable narrator. I don't like all of his books but that was a good one that fooled me until the last page.

  9. I was thinking what Red was while reading your post: All first person narration is unreliable.

    Some of my favorite, famous examples are Charlotte Perkins Gilman's, Yellow Wallpaper, which is great for illustrating the concept, and of course, Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. He manages to make us all think Gatsby is just what Nick thinks he is, but...

  10. I've recently finished Brock Clarke's Exley, and it was a maddening but enjoyable read, totally addicting. A nine year old prodigy believes his father shipped off to the war in Iraq (and has returned, injured, and is in his hometown's VA hospital), while his mother declares this a fantasy, that the father just left them and has not been in contact. Chapters are alternated between the child's POV and that of his mental health professional who himself unravels while trying to find out the truth. It was so frustrating, but deliciously so.

  11. @Kenneth - I can't even remember whether I liked it or not - just that I was incredibly intimidated by it.

    @scott - Thanks for the info on Fingerpost. I've never heard anyone say anything bad about it - need to move it up the priority list. And thanks for the recommendation on the Pamuk novel. That sounds a tad different than Snow, which is the only one of his with which I'm familiar.

    @Ben - Cool - that's a book/author I hadn't heard of. I'm off to check it out - thanks for the recommendation.

    @Red - Of course, you're right - all first-person narration is, by definition, unreliable. I should have clarified "intentionally-by-the-author" unreliable.

    @CB - Exactly - again, the difference between unintentionally unreliable (which really is more of a perspective issue, and not a reliability issue) and intentionally unreliable - which is the point here. And thanks for the recommendation!

  12. @llevinso - Good luck with Pale Fire. It's quite a literary trip!

    @Kathy - That's a good example, but I actually wasn't a fan of that one. (I liked Bohjalian's Skeletons At The Feast, though.) The Double Bind struck me as needlessly sensational and I remember thinking that if the whole story is Laurel's delusion, it should've been told from her perspective (not the third-person omniscient - where some scenes are told from the perspective of other characters, which doesn't make any sense if you want your reader to believe the whole thing is a one-character delusion). Maybe it's just that I didn't like being tricked. ;)

    @LBC - Yeah, as I said back to Red above, of course you're right. Good call on Gatsby - hadn't thought of Nick as unreliable before, but that definitely makes sense.

    @One Sweet Shannon - Very interesting - thanks for point that out. That does sound like it might take a bit of patience.

  13. As soon as I saw the title of this post I immediately thought Fight Club :)

  14. Kudos for The Usual Suspects mention! I adore that movie. Most of my experience with unreliable narrators has been through short stories - Anderson or Faulkner come to mind...

  15. All the good examples I can think of have been mentioned: the nameless narrator in The Yellow Wallpaper; Nick Carroway in Gatsby (he says "I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known"-beware the narrator who declares himself *honest*). And Double Bind by Chris Bohalian, which is also an intertextual novel, since it *talks to& The Great Gatsby...I would name more but....brain freeze...

  16. One instance of a memorable unreliable narrator that comes to mind (besides Humbert Humbert in Lolita) is the governess in Henry James' The Turn of the Screw. Is she crazy, or are these kids really demons? It's a great Halloween read.

    Also, The Usual Suspects is a fantastic movie with one of the best endings known to man... I like the tie in :)

  17. Well, there's good unreliable narrator in which the person is lying (whether intentionally or unintentionally) and then there's the bad kind where the narrator is lying because he/she and/or the author have no idea who the narrator actually is as a person. I'll give the example of "Life of Pi" for a good unreliable narrator, and "Twilight" for bad.

  18. @Holly - Ah, good call. Never read the book, but of course, the movie's great!

    @Trisha - Nice - another Usual Suspects fan! Yeah, it's a brilliant movie. Faulkner's an interesting pick too, because I guess the first narrator in the Sound and the Fury (which was a very difficult book) could be considered unreliable.

    @bibliophiliac - Ha - yeah, "trust me" is a sure indication that you shouldn't trust him. Did you like The Double Bind? I wasn't really a fan.

    @Brenna - I've read precisely zero Henry James, and never really been that tempted. I'll have to take your word for The Turn of the Screw. Would your recommend him? And yes, The Usual Suspects is fantastic! It came out my freshman year in college, and my friends and I probably watched it in excess of 245 times throughout school.

    @Amy - Well, I'd say your latter example is less unreliable narrator and more untalented writer! ;) But Life of Pi is another good example.

  19. Ford Madox Ford's master work, The Good Soldier is at least as good an example of the use of the unreliable narrator as found in Pale Fire and Lolita-a big difference is the narrator in FMF's work is unreliable because he himself does not really know what is going on around him-

  20. I loved "We, the Drowned" by Carsten Jensen (

    It is obvi­ous that the nar­ra­tor is from the Dan­ish port town Marstal, part of the com­mu­nity who bears wit­ness for a Cen­tury. We never know who the anony­mous nar­ra­tor is and that is part of the bril­liance of this novel.

  21. The Turn of the Screw! I'm so glad to see it mentioned - I'm not a James fan in general, but loved that one.

    Another that comes to mind is What Was She Thinking: Notes On A Scandal by Zoe Heller

    I'm adding The History of History to my TBR list.