Murderers used to be such a reliable lot. Granted, they might stab you in your study or poison you on an isolated island. But there was an honesty to their lunacy: they shot and stilettoed and bludgeoned according to an agreed formula, and when the end of 300 pages, or a spiffy Belgian detective approached, they came clean with alacrity. Murder was neat, tidy and immensely comforting.
Today such slaughter feels like the product of a more innocent age. Consume crime now and you are more likely to do so as one of the millions who download true-crime podcasts. Not only are these about real murders they also – almost more distressingly – have profoundly unsatisfactory narratives. Plots are vague and inconclusive; a witness is as likely to be “testilying” as testifying – and don’t even hope to find out whodunnit. You won’t.
Because true-crime podcasts such as Serial have not just made true crime fashionable, they have brought postmodernism to the postmortem. Who killed Hae Min Lee? Or that pretty Frenchwoman in Ireland? Or any of them? Who knows. Certainly not you, however many hours of these things you listen to, because you can never quite tell who – if anyone – is telling the truth. For podcasts are yet another example of the triumph of the unreliable narrator who, despite being unreliable, is now apparently also unstoppable.
It’s not just in true crime that the unreliable narrator is thriving. Books such as The Girl on the Train, The Woman in the Window and The Little Stranger have, with their definite articles and foggily indefinite accounts, taken over the fiction charts. The inevitable film adaptations, starring such Hollywood bankers as Rosamund Pike and Emily Blunt, have done similarly brilliantly in the film charts. The once-niche idea of the unreliable narrator has, as Peter Kemp, chief fiction reviewer for the Sunday Times and visiting fellow at Kellogg College, Oxford, says, “moved very much into the bestseller area”.
The current triumph of the unreliable narrator is a surprising one, as it is an idea with deeply unglamorous beginnings. It was coined in 1961 by an academic called Wayne C Booth in a book titled The Rhetoric of Fiction – not a volume that troubled the bestseller lists. It referred, says Kemp, to any narrator (almost always first person) who “tells you things which are discoverably – within the book – not true”.
Which seems neither a particularly thrilling idea nor a particularly new one. After all, one of the earliest of all known courtroom dramas nodded at this point when Pontius Pilate – who, depending on your viewpoint, was either an early postmodernist or possibly Satan’s helpmeet – asked his audience: “What is truth?”
For decades the unreliable narrator lurked within the walls of English literature departments; the sort of term used by people who also use words such as “hegemony” and “Rousseauvian” – and largely ignored by everyone else. Then somehow it slipped the bonds of lit crit and spread into the real world. Suddenly, it stopped feeling like something from an undergraduate essay and started to feel like a concept for our own age.
And not in a good way. As President Trump – postmodernist president par excellence, and patron saint of unreliable narrators – put it last year: “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” Quite so. Derrida could hardly have put it better himself. Meanwhile in Britain, in a Brexit campaign peppered with disinformation, Michael Gove – our own little political Pilate – seemed to query the value of empirical truth when he infamously declared that the British “have had enough of experts”.
It turns out that the unreliable narrator “might accidentally be speaking to aspects of the contemporary condition that it couldn’t possibly have anticipated”, says Bharat Tandon, lecturer in English at the University of East Anglia. What started as a literary term has gained “a particular pertinence and a particular disturbing frisson that it might not have had before”.
However it is still in fiction where the unreliable narrator’s triumph is most obvious. Kemp, as a reviewer for a national paper, sees a regular stream of unreliable narrators arriving through the letterbox of his house. You “open the Jiffy bag and you just read the publicity stuff and you can tell straight away it’s going to be a would-be Girl on the Train or a Gone Girl”, he says.
For though the narrator is unreliable, the narrative itself is as reliable as clockwork and the plot always the same. “Gradually frightening memories start to surface … And you think ‘Oh, here we go….’.” It’s a trope that has become so common that, Kemp suggests, “It’s almost as though there should be a health warning on the book: ‘This book contains a first person, unreliable narrator’.”
Though the term was coined in 1961 the idea itself was not one says Tandon “that miraculously sprang fully-formed into the world” in the 20th century. It appears in Tristram Shandy “which is very explicitly about that” and it’s “obliquely at play in Austen”. But it wasn’t until the enlightenment and the birth of the novel – and crucially the birth of realism – that it started to become prominent.
Suddenly, in this period, authors weren’t declaiming in the third person about the noble slaying of dragons or courtly quests for grails. They were buttonholing their audience in the first person, asking their reader to “Call me Ishmael”; or telling them how their nose was squashed in childbirth; or about how, finally, Reader, they married him.
Equally suddenly the readers found themselves able to evaluate the truth of their narrators’ words. They had the ability not only to call an author Ishmael – but also to call them a liar. The unreliable narrator is, says Tandon, “the flipside of the accuracy and the fidelity to reality that is bound up with the rise of the novel as an art form in the late 17th and early 18th centuries”.
While the trope may have been overused a touch since then, it was nonetheless a brilliant literary leap forwards. And the unreliable narrator can, says Kemp, still be “brilliant if it’s done really subtly or interestingly”.
Henry James did it in The Turn of the Screw. Edgar Allan Poe did it in The Tell-Tale Heart. Joseph Conrad did it in Heart of Darkness. And the Nobel prize-winning Kazuo Ishiguro did it perhaps best of all in The Remains of the Day with the butler Stevens. Kemp also points, more recently, to Sarah Waters’s deeply unsettling and brilliant novel The Little Stranger. And though the most recent unreliable narrators on film are unlikely to win many prizes, there have been brilliant ones. Few will have watched The Usual Suspects, or Fight Club and not felt a little unsettled.
However undoubtedly it is a trick that can be – and frequently is – taken too far. Stevens the butler was unreliable because his own character – his snobbery, his pride, his love – cast shadows that obscured his thoughts not just from the reader but even from himself. Modern unreliable narrators are often unreliable because of the far blunter reason that the memories simply aren’t there to access.
“Quite often it’s narrators who have trouble with their own memory,” says Kemp. “Often they’ve got alcoholic-induced amnesia … There are a few Alzheimer’s narrators as well.” The memories will then return at narratively convenient points. Often a bit too convenient, says Kemp.
“A danger of having an unreliable narrator is if you do it too clunkily and suddenly pull the rug from under the reader’s feet.” Or pull it in such a way that it’s completely implausible – the sort of “Where had she seen that tobacco-stained finger before?” type of twist. Not so much deus ex machina as memory ex machina.
Tandon agrees. There are those who do unreliable narration brilliantly: people who “inhabit it; people who use it … as a way of splitting the world open so that we wonder at it again. But for each one of those you’ll have 15 people who are playing it because the chords are easy.”
Easy – and eerily relevant. An idea that began in the early days of the novel then spread slowly to the literary departments of universities now seems so pertinent, so all-conquering that it is in danger doing itself out of business. For if, as some now suggest, everything is unreliable; if all we have is truthiness and no truth, then very idea of an unreliable narrator may itself become defunct.
“If everything is just another version and nothing is original source, if every version of things just could be claimed to be, in Kellyanne Conway’s great phrase ‘alternative facts’,” says Tandon, “then the status of the unreliable itself might have to be rethought. Because unreliability presupposes, at least in theory, reliability.” It’s an alarming thought: we should be worried less that the unreliable narrator has taken over our charts than that they have taken over our actual world.
“There is a sense in which this,” says Tandon – referring to the “post-truth” world – “is a terribly grim, ironic manifestation of a certain kind of a postmodern condition. This is not what postmodernism was meant to look like, but there seems to be a terrible logical connection.”
So what can be done about it? Tricky, says Tandon. “What do you do when you are in a situation – the post-truth scenario – where everything is a version of an original that can’t be found?”
Perhaps you do what people have always done when the real world gets too hard to handle. You shut the door, close out the world, and curl up in a chair with a good book. Just try and avoid one that has an unreliable narrator.
- Kazuo Ishiguro, winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, and a writer with a genius for tempting titles, created one of the finest unreliable narrators of all in his butler Stevens in The Remains of the Day.
- A recipe followed to perfection by Henry James in The Turn of the Screw – take one crumbling pile, one aristocratic family, a dubious narrator and mix well – is revived, brilliantly, in The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters.
- For those who want thrill as well as narrative skill in their unreliable narrator then look no further than the bestseller charts of the past few years and, in particular, Gillian Flynn’s blockbusting Gone Girl and Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train.