The Strand Magazine asked me to write an article about my favorite unreliable narrators. I had fun writing about it, and thinking about all of these great characters.
After writing my unreliable narrator Paul Strom in my book Best Day Ever, I’m often asked to name my favorite unreliable narrators out there who inspired me, whether I realized it at the time or not. We’re all unreliable narrators of sorts in our own lives, of course. Especially with social media – we can filter our lives and shade them however we’d like. Here are my top ten top unreliable narrators. I’m sure you have your own. Any truth is, of course, a matter of perspective, right?
1. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Probably the reason I’m having the opportunity to write this list for you, Gone Girl blew open the domestic suspense and unreliable narrator world with not one but two unreliable folks who happen to be married to each other. Nick and Amy were once in love, we think. This twisty tale is one of my favorites, and I’m sure, not a surprise for this list.
2. The Dinner by Herman Koch
How do you read an entire book with an unlikeable narrator? What if he’s also unreliable? I feel a kindred spirit with this book because Paul Lohman is unsettling and nasty. You don’t like him, but that isn’t the point. For some reason in the states we’ve decided fictional characters can be flawed, but must be likable. This Paul is very flawed, and extremely unlikable. The story is built around secrets, and even as you read, you realize you may not want to know the truth.
3. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
Poor Rachel. Our guide in this brilliant story is an alcoholic, unemployed divorcee who commutes into London each day because she doesn’t want to admit she’s lost her job. That’s sad, of course, but what livens up this story is the writing, the descriptions of Rachel’s state of mind. We like Rachel, we root for her, even as we are sucked into the horror of what is actually happening.
4. The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
What’s real and what is fantasy is the question in this beautiful tale. Unreliability could be the only way to survive reality in this gripping, beautiful movie.
5. Life is Beautiful by Roberto Benigni
I still get choked up, all these years later, thinking of the love in this story. Our unreliable narrator here is an open-minded, Jewish librarian who has become a victim of the Holocaust with his son. The father uses a perfect mixture of humor and imagination to protect his son from the truth of their situation.
6. Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe and The Lottery by Shirley Jackson (And, I should add read A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Conner)
It’s never a good idea to stick around the location of a murder. Especially if you’re the responsible party. In this short story, Poe demonstrates his mastery of suspense. And, because I only have ten, I’ve added another favorite short story to the mix. Have you read The Lottery? It’s one of the most brilliantly chilling short stories you’ll read. Promise. The brilliance is the calm telling of the tale, despite the terror.
7. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
Another scary example of an unpleasant, brutal narrator, like in The Dinner. Is he a successful investment banker or a psychopath? Did he kill and mutilate people, or not? An obvious satire about yuppie New York culture in the 1980s, this movie still has people guessing at the truth. In the end, the confession means nothing.
8. The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
When I read this book, I was on a long airplane flight. I was mesmerized. Yunior tells a fascinating story but does he know more about the story of Oscar Wao than he should?
9. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
After a wild summer with Tom, Daisy and Gatsby, Nick Carraway’s story of these people and their excesses is told with an exasperated and blurry eye. How else could the story be told? “I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me . . .” Nick says. Anybody who tells you from page one that they are an objective observer most likely isn’t.
10. Big Fish
I loved this movie. I know it’s not a traditional, dark unreliable narrator but when the dying Edward Bloom tells a story, I want to believe every word is true. If only his son would believe, too. While Edward’s son tries to learn the truth, we are treated to surreal and fabulous flashbacks. Was his life story filled with exaggeration? Probably. But the kernel of truth found in each tale is enough to make you love this unreliable narrator.