Colin Winnette and Jeremy M. Davies each have a new novel featuring an unreliable narrator: Winnette's Coyote follows a possibly unhinged mother and Davies's Fancy is about a man looking for a catsitter. Here, once and for all, they (maybe) settle the debate: Who’s the greatest unreliable narrator in literature?
Jeremy M. Davies: Let's set some ground rules: No Faulkner, no Joyce. No John Dowell, from The Good Soldier. No Nabokov at all. Nabokov dined out on his unreliable narrators for, what, forty years? Who needs those recommendations?
We’ll qualify our assignment by rebranding it "Best Unrecognized Unreliable Narrators."
Colin Winnette: How unreliable is a narrator really if he or she is famous for being unreliable?
Should Beckett be similarly nixed? I’d otherwise propose Krapp. If unreliable narrators manipulate facts to suit their needs, Krapp—whose existence consists solely of listening to self-selected segments of autobiographical tapes and eating bananas—is the apotheosis of unreliability.
JMD: But I don’t see Krapp as conspicuously dishonest. Deluding himself, I guess, in that he'd like to believe he's still got something to look forward to, but that's too universal an unreliability to count for much. Beckett's major narrators strike me as quite reliable, since they're not even willing to pretend to be people . . .
CW: Fair. But there's a case for narrators who are unintentionally misleading or otherwise limited in their ability to tell their story. Alice Soissons, of Gaetan Soucy's The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches, is very forthright in her presentation of herself. But, following the death of her father, she’s forced to leave the family farm, and once we’ve seen her through the eyes of others we realize we’ve been misled—not intentionally, but because she’s internalized a life of captivity and abuse.
JMD: Along similar lines, how about the narrator in Ingeborg Bachmann's Malina? It's not that she isn't articulate or doesn't understand her situation. Her perception of it, however, is so skewed and fantastical that we can't even be certain if the eponymous character, her roommate and confidant, exists.
CW: Perfect. Not necessarily a liar, but existing in a world (or with a mind) that's more complicated or multiple than a straightforward “account” can grasp.
JMD: Typically, an unreliable narrator is meant to be giving a garbled report of the world—but what happens when the world itself is garbled? (And who would argue that it isn't?)
CW: How about the protagonist of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness? His job—editing an enormous report detailing the gruesome massacres of the indigenous peoples of a Central American country by its military—feeds a growing sense of his being personally imperiled. Is this Moya implicating educated classes who’ve benefitted from past atrocities, or is the narrator simply unable to absorb this violence without making it a part of his own story? Or are his fears valid? The perpetrators of those atrocities are still in power. Garbled and garbling.
JMD: I’m nominating the Physicians’ Desk Reference.
CW: An unreliable narrator is a device the author uses to divide the world of the book. An account that intentionally generates a sense of something else—be it what "actually happened," the garbled and garbling world, or just a fog of inconsistencies and fragmentation.
JMD: Right. In the writing-workshop world, the term “unreliable” is too often applied to any old narrator with a theatrical style. There's Gogol's madman in "Diary of a ...", for instance, but when the diarist does depart from reality, it's so clearly signposted as psychosis that we're dealing less with unreliability than with, well, an efficient execution of the author's aims.
CW: Two popular contemporary "unreliable narrators" are Amy Dunne from Gone Girl and the kid from Emma Donoghue's Room. I'd argue they're liars, but not unreliable, really; they give us everything we need to understand what happened, and the stories they set out to tell are ultimately resolved. They’re very tidy.
JMD: That's an excellent distinction. Let’s zero in on voices that call into question even the possibility of reliability.
CW: Along the lines of Malina, there’s the narrator of Lydia Millet's My Happy Life. Abandoned in a deserted hospital, she's recording the details of her long and difficult life with what feels like unbelievable optimism and tenderness. Hers could be a defensive position, or it could be psychosis brought on by the tremendous suffering she's endured. Millet doesn’t wink or give us any perspective outside the narrator’s voice to measure her against. Forced to choose, I’d pick Millet’s narrator over Soucy’s. Grappling with the question of Millet’s narrator's reliability—and her possible motivations—requires an unnerving kind of empathetic speculation on the reader's part.
JMD: In Christopher Priest's The Affirmation, not only do we find—many times over—that events aren't quite as stated, there’s also the larger question of which (if either) of the two worlds described in parallel is meant to be taken as real. The narrators are honest with neither themselves nor the reader. It’s an excellent book someone needs to put back into print immediately.
CW: Always fighting the good fight!
JMD: And then there’s the great Rudolph Wurlitzer. His first two novels Nog and Flats might outdo Beckett in terms of giving us worlds where everything is disputable, puzzling, unnerving. Or Henry "The Sussex Slasher" James. The Sacred Fount is his least read major novel, and certainly his oddest. The narrator spends the entire book concocting elaborate deductions about fellow partygoers based on next to no evidence. Even when he’s finally “set straight,” it’s difficult to believe we’ve done anything more than penetrate a single layer of solipsism.
CW: Speaking of solipsism, Marie NDiaye’s narrators have often descended so far into their own universes that they are openly aware of, and oppressed by, the disconnect between reality and their perceptions. Her recent collection, All My Friends, presents multiple examples. First person or close third, the warped lens of the protagonist’s mind is the only view we have. And because the inherent isolation of one’s inner life is so stunting to these characters, the affect is claustrophobic at times, disorienting. Do people see me as I see myself? Are my perceptions accurate? We’re left to wonder, is it even possible to reconcile one’s inner life with those of others without just agreeing to accept the median and ignore the noise around it?
JMD: I think we’re getting there.
CW: If we’re aiming for five, you’ll have to choose between Wurlitzer, Priest, and James.
JMD: Holy Moses. That’s not fair. Aren’t we allowed to have three-way draws?
CW: Not if I have to cut poor Alice Soissons.
JMD: Under protest, I’ll go with James. We can’t go pretending there weren’t unreliable narrators before 1940.
JMD: But I feel unsatisfied.
CW: These lists are meant to be dissatisfying. Half recommendation, half fuel for debate over what we’ve excluded.
JMD: We’re ignoring other forms of the species. Daniel Schreber’s Memoirs of my Nervous Illness isn’t a novel, but an account of the author’s conviction that an egocentric God made wholly of “nerves” wants to turn him into a woman the better to have intercourse with and even impregnate him …
CW: Memoirs are all, de facto, the products of unreliable narrators—though Schreber is, admittedly, an advanced case.
JMD: Our pièce de résistance should be a book without an identifiable first-person narrator that is nonetheless untrustworthy despite pretentions to stability. I’d suggest that the bible of unreliability might be Brian Aldiss’s Report on Probability A, which posits an infinite series of voyeurs in different realities peering into a putatively unbiased, maddeningly precise, and so highly suspicious “report,” itself not unlike a novel . . .
CW: Which leaves us where?
JMD: With quantum physics?
CW: Or . . . the proposition that, while many “unreliable” narrators lie or otherwise obscure information, the terrain of storytelling is such that its more flawed and compelling characters are often those who believe themselves capable of putting together a comprehensive account in the first place—or that such an account is even possible.
5 of the Best Unrecognized Unreliable Narrators and 2 that Will Destroy Your Faith in Reliability Period:
The multiple narrators of Marie Ndiaye's All My Friends (2004, English trans. 2013)
Unnamed, Horacio Castellanos Moya's Senselessness (2004, English trans. 2008)
Unnamed, Lydia Millet's My Happy Life (2007)
Unnamed, Ingeborg Bachmann's Malina (1971, English trans. 1990)
Unnamed, Henry James’s The Sacred Fount (1901)
Daniel Schreber, Daniel Schreber’s Memoirs of my Nervous Illness (1903, English trans. 1955)
Reality itself, Brian Aldiss’s Report on Probability A, 1968