How reliable should your narrator be?

The unreliable narrator can be a very useful concept for the creative writer. Not only for dramatic purposes, but for comedic purposes too. After all, is there a quicker way to engage someone than to make them laugh?

In Sue Townshend’s Adrian Mole collection the frustrated protagonist (himself the unpublished author of such masterpieces as Lo! The Flat Hills Of My Homeland) is a fabulously unreliable narrator. Townshend uses the fact that the readers now have more perspective on major events than Mole did, in parts of the books when he chronicles them, to comic effect. Whether Adrian is recording his certainty that Tony Blair seems ‘a trustworthy sort’ or Prince Charles ‘clearly adores’ Princess Diana, Townshend makes us laugh at how unreliable Adrian is at picking up on what is happening in the world. In a later book Mole describes the bizarre behaviour of his wife Daisy – to the point where the reader almost wants to scream that she is clearly having an affair. Yet Mole’s blindness to this gives the comedy a tragic edge. He isn’t just unreliable to us, which provokes laughs, he is unreliable to himself and this adds drama. Albeit drama of the pantomime, ‘it’s behind you!’ style.

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I think the key to the unreliable narrator is the idea that the novel has to work as an ecosystem of its own. That is, you can be as imaginative as you want with a novel providing that it is consistent with its own set-up. You can have magic spells, wizards and goblins as long as you don’t suddenly make that happening impossible. This isn’t to say that a character can’t develop within a novels boundaries, of course.

In Sebastian Faulk’s Engleby we have a very unreliable narrator and this serves not only to build drama but to ask us searching questions about the nature of mental illness. Engleby is an odd, anti-social type who describes an unhappy childhood and once at at university, an infatuation with a popular fellow student, Jennifer. He steals a letter of hers, and her diary, and Engleby inveigles himself in a filming project she acts in. When Jennifer goes missing Engleby reports being deeply affected by this mystery, and we believe that he is. But as the novel progresses Engleby comes to remember- through the haze of drugs he has anaesthetised himself with- moments from his past which start to confront the truth of what he has reported about Jennifer. In this instance our protagonist is doing his best to tell us what really happened (or so we believe) but his best is just not accurate. Engleby’s reliability increases as the narrative progresses, and as it increases we are more and more hooked by the plot and want find out the truth.

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Other protagonists can be unreliable without seemingly wanting to be. In the enormously famous JD Salinger novel The Catcher In The Rye the protagonist Holden Caulfield’s recollections of being kicked out of school and what followed flow very easily for the reader. So easily in fact that as a result of his chatty, distracted narrative style we unclear about what exactly has happened. Has he been institutionalised before? Was he expelled for the reasons he says he was? How does he end up at the end of the novel? His candid style still manages to be opaque enough not to answer these questions, which makes the novel live on in our minds after the final page. Here, the charisma of the unreliable narrator makes us ask questions which he does not answer, for whatever reason. Like with Engleby there are enough diversions in his accounts (from riffs about books and music to vatious philosophical musings) to give room around the narrative.

In this room seeds are planted in the readers mind about who this person is and what they have done. But the chatty, flowing use of the first person in a novel prevents us from stopping the protagonist and getting him to clarify anything. Other characters happen to not corroborate his account. So in both Catcher and Engleby we read on, hoping our questions about ‘the truth of what happened’ will be answered. I think this engagement with the reader shows true skill from both Sebastian Faulks and JD Salinger. They know how to hook a reader even if their characters are seemingly not trying to do that!

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But protagonists can also be unreliable in a very knowing way. In Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita we are reading the account of a man, Humbert Humbert, who was put on trial for preying upon an underage girl, Dolores. The fictional ‘forward’ to the book is signed by a ‘John Ray Jr., PhD’ who describes himself as having been asked to edit Humberts’ memoir by his lawyer – the type of curious assignment that happens most readily in novels. Ray describes Humbert as ‘horrible’, ‘abject’, a ‘shining example of moral leprosy’ whilst at the same time, with rather elegant prose, trying to justify Humbert’s abhorrent obsession with underage girls and calling his account ‘a masterpiece’. With Ray having identified Humbert here as an unreliable narrator, and having insulted him, I sense that the reader is here being manipulated into understanding his obsessions as if this is the one element of Humberts’ account that John Ray thinks was made credibly. Nabokov is perhaps presenting us with two layers of unreliable narrator to really test the readers’ convictions. I suspect that John Ray is another manifestation of Humbert, within the world of the novel. As is often the case with unrealisable narrators – who knows the truth within the world of the story? Both narrators are presented by the elusive Nabokov, whose true intent in presenting such unreliable narrators we can only speculate over.

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