Roundtable on Unreliable Narrators

Ellen Datlow
One other out of genre example and one semi-genre example:

The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell, tells the same story from differing viewpoints.

The Jerusalem Quartet by Edward Whittemore does some of the same in the different volumes.

However, as John Clute points out (I think this is what he may be saying): are these “unreliable” narrators or just differing perspectives of the same story?

It seems to me that only the conscious lie makes the narrator “unreliable”.

Cecelia Holland
I think Ellen has a point: there’s a deliberately unreliable narrator and one who misleads himself first. For the deliberate liar you need a motive for lying, which creates another frame.

Siobhan Carroll
“It seems to me that only the conscious lie makes the narrator ‘unreliable’.”

But it seems that we agree that a mad narrator (“Tell-Tale Heart”) is a classic unreliable narrator — and can a madman consciously lie?

In practice, I think readers distinguish between narrators-with-different-perspectives and unreliable narrators. In Rashomon, for example, what makes the narrators’ unreliable isn’t that they view the same event differently, but that some or all of them have to be lying, because they each blame the murder on a different person — and usually on themselves.

Ellen Datlow
I don’t think I know enough about “madness” to know for sure, but it seems to me that not all mad people lie. However, in the “Tell-tale Heart” he is lying to himself as well as to us, the readers.

Siobhan Carroll

I suppose I find “the liar” — the criminal trying to avoid conviction, the con artist aiming to enrich herself — less interesting than the deluded narrator. One type resists character analysis; the other invites it.

“The Liar” knows the truth and has clear, conscious motives for keeping it out of the hands of the audience. The type I think of as the deluded narrator is lying to herself as well as the audience and usually has unconscious motives for doing so. Guilt, a desire for self-aggrandizement, jealousy… Figuring out the narrator’s motives — and therefore the narrator’s character — becomes the point of reading this kind of “unreliable narrator” fiction.

The liar, I’d suggest, often ends up having no character at all. Take The Joker in The Dark Knight telling two contradictory origin stories — the effect of this isn’t to develop his character in a traditional sense but to make it more inaccessible. Similarly, the narrator of The Usual Suspects — another liar — ends up being a cipher. We arguably know less about the character at the end of the film than we thought we did at the mid-way point.

So while both may be unreliable narrators, they have different types of appeal. I think.

Jonathan Strahan
Gary touches on it, but to me the most interesting “unreliable narrator” I’ve come across recently is Imp in Caitlin Kiernan’s Drowning Girl. To have a narrator who is being as honest as possible, making every effort to tell the truth as she sees it, but whose perceptions are inherently unreliable makes for fascinating reading and is much more interesting than the narrator who for his or her own purposes attempts to mislead us.

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