For this post, I’m thinking about narrators. Specifically, first person narrators; a character who is involved in the action, telling us the story. The influence that a narrator has on a story is immeasurable, sometimes completely distorting the reader’s view of the events and characters described.
I’ve spent the past few days going through the library catalogue in my brain, thinking about the narrators I’ve loved and hated, as well as the ones who have basically freaked me out or annoyed me to the point that I want to rewrite the book without them in it.
The narrator who made me start thinking about this whole issue was Flannery Culp, the main character from Daniel Handler’s The Basic Eight; I read this book in 2015 and it has become one of my favourites. Flannery is a brilliant narrator; she’s snarky, entitled and sardonic, telling us the story of a murder alongside the everyday interactions of her equally privileged group of friends. This is such a gloriously and disturbingly surprising book that I don’t want to ruin it for anyone who I might be able to convince to read it; suffice to say the full extent of Flannery’s role as a fascinating narrator evolves throughout. Now please, please read this book so we can talk about it.
It might be clichéd to bring up Holden Caulfield from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, but it’s a book I still love, even as a boring grown-up and the kind of earnest teacher Holden himself would probably hate. Even as he tries his hardest to be cynical and steely, there’s a yearning and a desperation about Holden which belies his frequent dismissals of everyone around him. The Catcher in the Rye gives a good example of a narrator who thinks they’re self-aware, but actually this is not the case.
Self-awareness is key, I think, to how we react to a narrator. For example, although To Kill a Mockingbird features a child principal character, Scout tells her story as an adult, reflecting on the events of her youth, which allows what we might think of as a childish narrative to demonstrate a degree of adult self-awareness. Scout the character doesn’t realise the significance of her actions, for example, in defending Tom Robinson outside the jailhouse, but Scout the adult narrator clearly does, and in choosing not to reflect on it obtrusively, Harper Lee plays a masterstroke in the creation of her narrator. When I read novels with child narrators, I am always reminded of To Kill a Mockingbird and how it almost tricks us into thinking the narrator is a child and how much smarter that is than actually employing a child as the storyteller. Jack in Emma Donoghue’s Room was, I’m slightly ashamed to say, very annoying to me and, yes, I do understand that this makes me sound like a horrible person. The use of a child narrator of Gary D. Schmidt’s recent Orbiting Jupiter, however, is superb; this Jack is an innocent desperately trying to understand the traumatic life of his new foster-brother, and his naivety is charming and heartbreaking rather than cloying.
I don’t think it is necessary to like a narrator in order to enjoy their story. To take an extreme example, Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho features a narrator with no redeeming features beyond a love of Huey Lewis and the News; Patrick Bateman is a complete sociopath, whether he truly is a serial killing maniac or he’s so mentally disturbed that he genuinely believes this to be the case. It is clear from an early stage that Bateman’s perception is, to say the least, slightly off; the juxtaposition of horrible murders and complicated gourmet dishes, for example, points towards someone not entirely functioning like a normal human. I obviously don’t like Bateman (although Christian Bale playing him in the film does cause something of a conflict here) but I find him fascinating. A book in which I fundamentally disliked the narrator and this, in part, ruined the book, however, is The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. From the beginning, Amir drove me to the brink with his whinging and complete lack of real empathy. I read American Psycho and The Kite Runner on the same holiday (because I really know how to chill out) and the latter was nearly thrown in the pool on more than one occasion.
Annoying narrators, obviously, are a whole other situation. In this category, I place the following: Victor Frankenstein (seriously, stop fainting every time you are on the brink of realising what an arse you are) and Kathy from Never Let Me Go, which I have recently taught to a class of 14 year olds, possibly putting them off reading for life. Maybe Kathy can’t help being emotionally stunted and entirely lacking in self-awareness, but when you start underlining every instance of Kathy claiming to remember everything that’s ever happened to her and then contracting herself immediately after, you start to lose the will to highlight. I am also not a fan of Lucy Snowe from Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, who takes all the parts I don’t like about Jane Eyre and adds humourlessness and superhuman levels of dullness to the equation.
could go on about this forever. Offred from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is another narrator I find completely fascinating, along with Eva Khatchadourian from Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin; I’ll be discussing both of these in a future post. Hitler from Timur Vermes’ extremely bizarre Look Who’s Back would merit a post all of his own; his lack of self-awareness is crucial for the success of the narrative, creating a humour which feels jarring when you consider who you’re actually reading about.
So which narrators do you love and hate? Maybe you love and hate them at the same time and this makes your brain hurt a bit: why not ease the pain by commenting here?