The Unreliable Narrator seems to be all the rage in fiction right now. And why not? It’s a great way to surprise a reader, and to keep us guessing. The most popular current example is Gillian Flynn’s GONE GIRL, in which things are never quite what we gather from the two conflicting narrative voices. Paula Hawkins’s THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN uses the same technique, with the added trick of a narrator who is an alcoholic with a tendency to drink herself into memory-wiping stupors. We constantly are forced to wonder just how trustworthy her impressions really are.
Alfred Hitchock, of all people, ran up against critical brickbats by using an unreliable-narrator flashback in his 1950 film STAGE FRIGHT. By showing a leading character’s false alibi as a flashback, Hitchcock was pulling a fast one on his audience. Until then, showing someone’s narrative of a flashback on-screen had always been considered to represent the truth. Viewers had always assumed they could count on that. Unless it was clearly stated that each character had a different version of the truth—as was done that same year in Kurosawa’s Rashomon—there was an unspoken contract between filmmaker and viewer that flashbacks equaled truth.
I’ve just finished Renée Knight’s DISCLAIMER, which takes the unreliable-narrator technique to a whole new level. And I must say, I like it even more than THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN because it mixes in a juicy dose of meticulously-plotted revenge. Rather brilliantly, Knight piles on twist after twist toward the end, making us feel guilty for assigning blame based on whose story we were believing all along.
What are some of your own favorite examples of unreliable narration? I’d love to know. (But please do us all a favor and try to avoid spoilers!)