Roundtable on Unreliable Narrators
Unreliable narrators. Why use them? Is it playing fair with the reader? What stories do it best? Who will mention Gene Wolfe first? (Ah, I guess that’d be me.) Who else uses them effectively?
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Speaking for the horror field, you could go back at very least to Henry James’ “Turn of the Screw,” where we get the uneasy suspicion near the story’s end that the governess narrator’s own emotions and psychological issues are distorting the events that she is reporting. Perhaps you could even go back to Frankenstein. Victor Frankenstein’s account of himself as a much put-upon victim seems very valid until the monster waltzes in and tells his side of the story.
I’d have to think about more modern examples, and more deliberate uses of the unreliable narrator.
I’ve long felt that “unreliable”, while a pretty good blanket term, is problematic in that it doesn’t get down to the specifics. There are so many reasons that a narrator is unreliable, some of them willful, some of them out of ignorance, some out of malice. All of those modes can be interesting, but they all have a decidedly different effect…
One of my favorite unreliable narrator stories of ALL TIME is Stephen Graham Jones’ “Father, Son, Holy Rabbit.” It uses the device so very effectively.
Another favorite is the Tiptree story, “Your Face, O My Sisters, Your Faces Filled of Light” for the subtlety with which it signals the narrator’s unreliability right from paragraph one.
I don’t really like omniscient narrators. The best narrative voice is strained through one character’s sensibilities so completely it’s all just what he sees, and who sees everything? And sometimes–often–what he sees is the story–as in the “Telltale Heart”.
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