In my post about first person narrative, I forgot to mention the sub-genre of unreliable first-person narrators. In my misspent book-reading youth I was quite enamored of such contrivances, even though I’ve never bothered with them in my own writing. An obvious example of an unreliable narrator is Huckleberry Finn, who often doesn’t quite understand the events or people he’s describing, so readers have to intuit what’s really happening.
But that’s pretty straightforward. More interesting, to me at any rate, are narrators who at first seem to be reliable, but whom we gradually realize aren’t, thereby requiring us to reassess the entire story. Just typing that sentence makes me want to re-read Nabokov’s Pnin and Pale Fire, which blew me away when I first read them decades ago.
I watch movies more than I read books nowadays (they’re shorter!), and unreliable narration seems to show up constantly in films and even in TV shows. Mad Men does it all the time. In last week’s episode (the first episode of the last half-season), we suddenly see one of Don’s old flames modeling a chinchilla coat for him. We are never told that this didn’t actually happen–we just have to figure out what’s going on in reality and what’s going on in Don’s somewhat enigmatic imagination.
The one time I really didn’t expect unreliable narration was in Hitchcock’s movie Stage Fright. This is a straightforward Hitchcock thriller, except for an early flashback that (spoiler alert) turns out to be a false version of a murder.
No! Not an unreliable narrator!
IMDB tells us that audiences were baffled and then enraged by this device, and I think I read somewhere that Hitchcock later called it the worst directorial decision he made in his career. It certainly gives you a jolt.
As I said, I don’t do this sort of thing in my writing, but I find myself close to the Huckleberry Finn style of unreliable narration sometimes in The Portal and its sequel, both of which are narrated by a young teenager. Sometimes, to be true to his character, he can’t be allowed to quite understand what’s going on.
I hope this doesn’t enrage my readers.