my love affair with the unreliable narrator

Only recently have I realized that my favorite books have unreliable narrators. Perhaps it’s the additional puzzle that is involved in the novel or maybe I just like complex people. I think it’s more the former than the latter though because most of the unreliable narrators are sociopaths and I’d like to believe that I am not attracted to serial killers and liars.

Some of the best and worst narrators are:

Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson in Irvine Welsh‘s Filth. He’s a racist, homophobic, sexist detective that drinks and does drugs while on the job. I read this book over the course of a weekend; I stayed in and withdrew into this insane world. It was only me, Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson and his drinking and drugs. I couldn’t put the book down which is strange because I hated this character so much. However, Welsh just kept me hanging on and I couldn’t stop reading. My face seemed to get greasy just reading about all the drugs Robertson did.  This novel affected me in a physical way that I still don’t understand. It’s probably one of the reasons I love it so much, because no other novel has affected me the same way.

Patrick Bateman in Bret Easton EllisAmerican Psycho. Again, another racist and homophobe but he  is obsessed with fashion, money, and murder. While Bateman’s sanity is questioned, the violence you have to read is quite real – it’s disgusting, horrific, and unsettling. But somehow the violence is necessary – even the scene with the rat. There is no way to view Bateman as as he aspires to be – as sophisticated and fashion forward after reading such violent scenes. The style and brand details are just as complete as the brutality that Bateman inflicts on others.

Umeed “Rai” Merchant in Salman Rushdie‘s The Ground Beneath Her Feet. Rai tells the love story of a modern day Orpheus. Rai is a famous photographer who has built his career on a dead man’s photographs and claims to have had a relationship with Vina Apsara, the greatest female singer of all time (who had a very public relationship with Ormus Cama). At first read, Rai appears to be an empathetic narrator until you start putting all his claims together and his need to own some part of Vina Apsara after she dies.

The unnamed Narrator in Chuck Palahniuk‘s Fight Club. This narrator suffers from insomnia; he travels often and meets a charismatic fellow named Tyler Durden who works at night and they form a fight club. They both form different relationships with a woman named Marla. Tyler is the alpha male to the Narrator who becomes entrenched in Tyler’s Project Mayhem. The Narrator loses control of himself; falling asleep more and more; unable to locate Tyler, always one city behind him.

Charles Kinbote in Vladimir Nabokov‘s Pale Fire. The novel is comprised of four parts; an introduction, the poem, commentary and finally an index. John Shade has written a four canto poem – 999 lines and left it incomplete. After he was murdered, his neighbor, Charles Kinbote acquired Shade’s work and he is writing notes to the cantos.  Kinbote writes that the poem is about the former King of Zembla (which he insinuates to be) but the more you read, you realize he is not writing about the poem but about his fanciful delusions and you question everything Kinbote cites.

Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov‘s Lolita. Humbert tries to explain his love for the underage Lolita as not “offensive” but “unusual”. For over half the novel, Humbert refrains from any physical contact with Lolita, and Nabokov is such an artist that you fall into Humbert’s justification. He merely worships and cares for the nymphet Lolita. I was disgusted when I realized I had fallen into his trap but also felt remorse for my past judgement of an old boyfriend. He had warned me that Nabokov sucks you into Humbert’s world and that you forgive him until his physical contact of the child. I’ll admit that when my ex-boyfriend told me, I thought, who is this guy I’m dating? And yet, I fell for it too. Nabokov is a master. Don’t judge me if you haven’t read Lolita.

Annie in Jenn Ashworth‘s A Kind of Intamacy. The scary thing about Annie is she could easily be any girl you know. She lives in a fantasy world and believes the boy next door is interested in her and only stays with his girlfriend out of kindness. She moves into their neighborhood because she and her husband only recently split up. Annie is so frightening because she appears to be so kind and cheerful but instead she is manipulative, deceitful, selfish, and cruel.

Alexander Perchov (“Sasha“) in Jonathan Safroen Foer‘s Everything is Illuminated. Sasha and his grandfather work for a travel agency in the Ukraine and help an American (Jonathan Safroen Foer)  find the woman who may have saved his grandfather from the Nazis.  The novel is split into narration by Alex and the history of a small town. He speaks textbook English and misuses idioms. He later admits that he misrepresents things to protect Jonathan from the truth.

Basile Tocquard in Leila Marouane‘s The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris. Basile and his family are Muslim but he views being Muslim as a hindrance and changes his name, hair, and skin color (with expensive creams). Basile is convinced that an author is responsible for his cousin’s suicide. He reads her books obsessively, taking notes, and blames her for stealing his own writing. The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris is a tricky read, I continually had to go back and double check what I had read to make sense of where things were going. However, the story is interesting and the style is just lovely.

Yambo in Umberto Eco‘s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. Yambo differs from most unreliable narrators; he has lost his personal memories although he has retained everything he has ever read. The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana is about a man’s struggle to find his memory. He will remember one thing incorrectly until someone informs him of his mistake or he finds proof in his home.

Matt Freeman in Henry Sutton‘s Get Me Out of Here. I picked it up because it appeared to have an unreliable character. I started to get nervous because it started to get a bit too similar to American Psycho. But that’s not fair to Sutton; just because Ellis has written about a male sociopath who may or may not be a murderer doesn’t mean that Sutton can’t. In fact, Freeman is almost the exact opposite of Bateman – he has expensive tastes but cannot afford them and he scams free items from stores. He has a money problem and a past girlfriend who haunts him. He also appears to be more translucent than Bateman but I’m only half-way through this book so this may change within another 150 pages.

I’m sure there are quite a few more and I look forward to discovering them on my own. However, if you have any suggestions, I’m happy to hear them!

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2 thoughts on “my love affair with the unreliable narrator

  1. I haven’t read Welsh’s Filth, but it sounds like the protagonist is similar to the narrators in the first two books of David Peace’s “Red Riding Quartet” (1974 and 1977, respectively). These novels force you to align with the narrators because they’re telling their stories and because, well, they’re not quite as morally reprehensible as some of the other characters, but they’re still total douchebags. I always appreciate it when an author can manipulate me into thinking, “I hope this total asshole gets away with this awful thing he’s about to do that I know is awful…” Anyway, I started book 3 (1980) last night and I’m about halfway done. Crazy good, and highly recommended if you haven’t read them yet.

  2. Thank you so much for the recommendation; you are one of the most reliable readers I know! They are now on my list of books to read.

    I agree with you about the authorial manipulation. It’s as though you’re on a rollercoaster and you just let someone else take charge. I always follow the rules but I revel living in this other reality where you allow a sociopath to justify his actions. Eventually you become fed up but it’s fun getting there. I like getting into another person’s head that I would never interact with in real life. I may meet some unique people in the club setting but I have yet to meet a Patrick Bateman or a Detective Seargent Bruce Robertson. If I did, I would run. But I’m happy to dedicate a week of my reading to their insane worlds.

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