People don’t appreciate being lied to. There are a few exceptions, like when someone spares your feelings because the dish you brought to the potluck wasn’t that delicious, or when that shirt really does make you look like a clown. Usually, though, we prefer the truth. We get angry when our elected officials lie to us and heartbroken when our lovers do the same. We hate when we’re misled into wasting our time, our money, or our sympathy.
There is at least one place where we do enjoy being lied to: in the pages of a book being narrated by someone who cannot be trusted.
(Reader beware — I’ve tried to be vague, but this article contains a few minor spoilers about popular books.)
Who Are These Lying Liars?
Unreliable narrators come in a variety of forms. Some you can’t believe because they’re criminally minded liars, like Amy in Gone Girl. Others have their point of view twisted by mental illness, as in the case of Chief Bromdem from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Patrick Bateman, of American Psycho infamy, would fall into both categories. Pulp crime writer Jim Thompson was a master of creating unstable criminals, as in books like Pop 1280 and The Killer Inside Me. You never know when to believe them.
Kids say the darnedest things, and their perspective is colored by their innocence and inexperience with the world. The titular Huck Finn in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is too young to realize how shady the supporting characters are. It’s up to the reader to figure it out through Huck’s observations. Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye sees everything through the angry, red-tinted glasses of an angsty teen. It’s been suggested that there’s more going on in this one than just the petulance of youth, but you’ll have to read between the lines/lies to find it. The matter will forever be up for debate, as Holden is unreliable and never spells it out. (Also, if you loved this one when they made you read it in high school, you should read it again as an adult. It’s a totally different book.)
Whatever their reasons for misguiding the reader, whether they believe what they’re saying or not, unreliable narrators force us to think a little harder about the story being told. It’s up to us to decide what to believe. One of the best parts about reading Lolita, besides the beautiful prose, is trying to figure out how much of Humbert’s story even he believes. How much of his self-serving narrative is delusion, and how much is sociopathy?
Surprise! I Haven’t Been Honest With You!
While Chuck Palahniuk is a bit of a polarizing figure in literature, few can argue that the big reveal toward the end of Fight Club wasn’t effective as hell. I sure didn’t see it coming. Which brings me to another prime selling point of the unreliable narrator: the shock factor.
A good surprise in a story is the kind of thing that makes your heart beat faster. It makes you want to text your friends, like “OMG did u find out about ned stark??” Lovecraft’s end-of-tale, italicized twists leave you shocked and satisfied. In the case of the unreliable narrator revelation, the surprise comes with questioning the entirety of the previous narrative.
Not all unreliable narrators do this. You know from jump that Humbert is a creep, that Huckleberry is just a kid, and that Chief Bromdem is in a psychiatric hospital. You had no idea about Gone Girl, though. That mid-book reveal blows your mind and changes the whole story.
Piscine in Life of Pi is a great example. He’s an unreliable narrator who doesn’t fall into one of the usual categories. He’s not crazy, he’s not a criminal, and while he is young, few could say he’s naive. When he changes his story at the end, the entire book we just read is altered by this shift. Or is it? Since Pi’s an unreliable narrator, it’s up to the reader to decide.
While liars generally don’t make for good company, they’re some of my favorite characters to read in books. They lend mystery to otherwise straight narratives, and carry the capacity to surprise the reader and shift the whole story in an instant. I prefer my friends to be honest and upfront with me. Narrators, keep on being unreliable.