The following post originally appeared on the Guild of Dreams site a few years ago. The time which has passed doesn’t make any difference to the post…other than the fact that I didn’t exactly watch the top 10 video all that recently. Everything else still applies. Enjoy.
Recently, I had a few extra minutes on my hands during my lunch at work, so I decided to fire up YouTube and waste a little time watching a video or two. The first one I decided on was a top 10 list…specifically a WatchMojo video counting down their version of the top movie narrators. Among them were two of my favourites: Fight Club and Memento, both of which are excellent examples of the use of the unreliable narrator.
I can’t say too much about Fight Club without giving stuff away (the first rule of Fight Club is don’t talk about Fight Club), so you’ll have to trust me that Edward Norton’s unnamed character (known even in the credits simply as ‘the narrator’) is completely unreliable in his relating the events of the movie.
Memento is easier to take a look at; the premise of the film revolves around a man who cannot recall recent memories as he tries to track down his wife’s murderer. As the narrator of the movie, we know from the start that we will have to question everything he thinks he knows and every decision he makes. How can we trust the word of a man who can’t remember what happened only a day ago? (On a side note, if you haven’t seen this movie, you should. The screenplay was written by Hollywood’s current ‘it’ director, Christopher Nolan, and the story is told in reverse chronological order, not as a gimmick, but because it needs to be. Brilliant!)
The unreliable narrator is a device that has long been used by writers to keep things from readers, to set up surprises and keep us all guessing. I use the unreliable narrator myself in my Icarus Fell novels, keeping a tight, first person point of view through the entire first book, then loosening up to a couple of other POVs in books two and three. A few readers have expressed some level of frustration with this, because they only get to know what the character knows, but that is entirely the point. In these books, and many others, it is intended for the reader to be thrown slightly off kilter, to have events tinted by the narrators opinions, memories, biases, and so on. It can make for a more immersive read.
Another great example of the unreliable narrator can be found in John Irving’s Until I Find You (it’s also a great example of how to write exquisitely flawed characters, as are all of his works). The first half of the book follows the main character, Jack Burns, through his coming of age as he and his mother search for his father. The second half is detailed by the grown up Jack as he retraces his youth and the unreliability of the young narrator is revealed bit by bit, until we see that Jack`s flawed memory has led both he and us seriously astray from the truth.
So what is your opinion of the unreliable narrator? Does it add to the piece, or do you feel cheated by not knowing for sure if you are reading the truth? Who are some other memorable narrators who couldn’t be trusted?
Bruce Blake is the author of 9 novels, 151 screenplays, half a dozen improv scripts, a volume of backwards haiku, and a complete set of encyclopedia written in pig Latin…or perhaps he is also an unreliable narrator.