Who can you trust when you can't trust your narrator?

8 Brilliant Books With Unreliable Narrators

In an era of “fake news” and “alternative facts”, it is becoming increasingly hard to believe traditional sources of authority. But these eight books played fast and loose with information and perspective long before our current manic moment. If you thought the talking heads on the 24-hour news were a bit off, then these narrators will really make you question your reality.


1. Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk 

Before the 1999 film adaptation changed the way we look at support groups, as well as soap, forever, Fight Club was Palahniuk’s astounding 1996 debut novel. Palahniuk set out to write the most controversial story he could imagine, and this sick story of brotherly bonding gone terribly awry will not be everyone’s bag. Still, the sparse prose of the never-named narrator, describing a world of crass commercialism, toxic masculinity, and populist rage, is too relevant to dismiss as merely shock-value schlock.


2. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes 

Charlie, an adult man living with a developmental disability, undergoes an experimental surgery that supercharges his mental function and transforms his life. The story doesn’t end there. Flowers for Algernon is presented as Charlie’s experimental diary, and the reader finds himself a personal witness to Charlie’s rapidly evolving understanding of himself, his past, and the society that abused and ignored him. Algernon began as a 1959 short story before being its expansion into the 1966 novel, but its sensitivity to issues surrounding disability and the treatment of those with profound differences feels much, much more modern in its sensibility.


3. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov


Nabokov, a Russian émigré and perpetual expatriate, was fifty-six years old when Lolita broke through to become the first major success of his career. Lolita tells the tale of Humbert Humbert, a disturbed and isolated middle-aged man who develops an intense sexual obsession with his landlady’s twelve-year-old daughter. The novel, now regarded by many as a classic, shows its age in some parts, especially in its treatment of sexual abuse. But in Humbert, Nabokov has crafted a character so self-involved and resolute in his sins that you cannot help but be sucked in to his world.


4. Room by Emma Donoghue


In the first page of this novel, we learn that our narrator, Jack, is five years old and lives with his mother in a place he calls “Room”.  A few pages in, we come to understand the awful truth: Jack has never seen the outside of Room, the tiny storage shed that has held his kidnapped mother for nearly seven years. The novel, which features sexual abuse and other serious topics, is not an easy book to read. However, Donoghue’s decision to tell this story through the eyes of an innocent child empowers us to look beyond the sensational aspects of the story and appreciate the things that cannot be locked away—whether it be a little boy’s imagination or a mother’s unshakeable love.


5. Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller

Notes on a Scandal is a timeless tale of boy meets girl…except the girl is a thirty-something art teacher and the boy is her fifteen-year-old student. Leading us through the abyss is Barbara, a friend and colleague of wayward teacher Sheba and a woman whose prim veneer barely masks the desperate loneliness and growing obsession festering underneath. Notes on a Scandal is a brilliant psychological read and a fresh perspective on the origins of everyday media firestorms.


6. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

Christian Bale drew raves for his portrayal of soulless eighties businessman Patrick Bateman, but that performance could never have existed without Ellis’s 1991 novel and the funny/horrifying narrator at its center. American Psycho was highly controversial upon its publication, and remains so today. One thing is for certain: there is no literary narrator quite like Patrick: As he puts it, “I simply am not there.”


7. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn 

Nick and Amy Dunne appear to have the perfect marriage. Perfect, that is, until Amy suddenly goes missing and Nick is immediately accused of being her murderer. As this once ideal couple becomes cannon fodder for the media machine, both Nick and Amy must act quickly to ensure they get what they want before it’s too late. Flynn’s ability to turn domestic slights into legitimate life-or-death stakes propels this novel beyond the garden-variety thriller into something much stranger—and much better.


8. The Secret History by Donna Tartt 

Richard Papen lives a dull and unhappy life in a California backwater when he decides to upgrade his life and move to a tiny liberal arts college located in rural Vermont. The friends he ends up making in his Classics class are not exactly your average college students: they dress like Jazz Age fops, compete aggressively over who does the best Latin translations, and may just be the most coldblooded criminals Hampden College has ever matriculated. Tartt partly based the novel on her experiences at Bennington College in the eighties, but her narrator, Richard, tells the story in the style of an old-fashioned melodrama—more Dickens than Ellis. Tartt never deviates from the question that drives Richard and his friends to their gruesome fates: What is beauty really worth?


 Featured image courtesy of Closer Weekly