We love us a narrator who’s insane in the membrane. Aware or unaware of their manipulations and omissions, cool and calculating, or slowly descending into the dark abyss of the untethered mind, here are (spoiler alert) eight of fiction’s craziest unreliable narrators. (Ed note: A Google Image Search of “old reliable” is NSFW.)
Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye
Sullen, disaffected teenagers are seldom considered reliable narrators, and Holden will tell you himself he’s “the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life.” It’s up to Salinger’s readers to decide what’s real and what’s really “phony” in Holden’s account.
Humbert Humbert, Lolita
To read Nabokov’s novel as the story of a sexually precocious 12-year-old girl seducing a much-older man is to forget that the narrator is a child molester brilliant enough to convincingly portray himself as the hapless victim.
Chief Bromden, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
In a loony bin, we’re talking degrees of reliability. Is the paranoid, hallucinatory Bromden crazy, or the most clear-eyed of all Ratched’s victims? Yes, he plays mute and sees mind-controlling fog machines, but his idea of the Combine is a strikingly insightful condemnation of modern society.
Mary Katherine Blackwood, We Have Always Lived in the Castle
If Merricat Blackwood listed her likes on her Match.com profile—her sister Constance, Richard Plantagenet, and the death-cup mushroom—you’d probably steer clear of her. As Shirley Jackson’s narrator, however, you’re stuck with her, and well before you learn the true story of her family’s murder, it becomes clear that Merricat is two arsenic-laced sandwiches short of a picnic.
Patrick Bateman, American Psycho
Are the yuppie banker’s grizzly murders real or imagined? Ellis takes us so deep into his narrator’s stream of consciousness that it’s hard to know just how reliable, or unreliable, Bateman is as a narrator, if not as a music critic. (Let’s hope that bodes well for American Psycho: The Musical).
Unnamed, Fight Club
Bateman isn’t the first egomaniacal, homicidal narrator to have his own musical, and I hope he’s not the last, because I’d really like to see Hugh Jackman sing about defiling a pot of cream of mushroom soup. Palahniuk drops hints throughout the book that insomnia is not his narrator’s biggest problem. For one, we never get his name, but we get Tyler’s on page one.
Eva, We Need to Talk About Kevin
No, we need to talk about Eva, because she might be as sociopathic as her son. Eva’s control of the story, told in the form of letters written two years after her son massacres ten people, is at once complete, in that she’s our only source, and incomplete, in that her vision of her relationship to her son is so obviously warped.
Nick and Amy Dunne, Gone Girl
Not to spoil it for the 2.3% of people who have not yet read this book, but Nick and Amy Dunne (oh, especially Amy) are not the most trustworthy of sources. Twists and turns and deliberate deceit turn the story on its head, and readers are shocked because Flynn is toying with our ability to discern reliability.
Do you enjoy spending a novel with an unreliable narrator?