Be it comics, film, music, or novels, all media have some things that they convey better than the others. I think that novels, in particular, do a fantastic job of dealing with an unreliable, unhinged or simply insane narrator. While there are plenty of films that focus on a character’s specific point of view as a way to drive their story (think Rashomon, Memento or even Big Fish), you don’t get in the protagonist’s head in the same way as in a book. In a book, you aren’t just watching the character act strangely. You’re wandering through the frightening forest of a schizophrenic’s intellect, experiencing the world through different eyes.
The idea for this post came while I was reading The Passage, Justin Cronin’s upcoming novel. I’ll tread very lightly here because the last thing I want to do is spoil the story, but one of the antagonists is quite off his rocker. Here’s an excerpt of the book from the point of view of Babcock;
He was made of Many. A thousand-thousand-thousand scattered over the night sky, like the stars. He was one of Twelve and also the Other, the Zero, but his children were within him also, the ones that carried the seed of his blood, one seed of Twelve; they moved as he moved, they thought as he thought, in their minds was an empty space of forgetting in which he lay, each to a one, saying, You will not die. You are a part of me, as I am part of you. You will drink the blood of the world and fill me up.
With a character like Babcock, you feel unsettled just peeking into his unsettled mind. It’s not a cheap camera trick, or a narrative deception to hide a twist at the end of the story. In some novels, the excitement isn’t in waiting to see what is going to be revealed, but the experience of the entire story told through a narrator’s fun house mirror of a brain.
Here’s a list of a handful of books that rely on – and execute wonderfully – the conceit of an off-their-rocker narrator. While I’ll tread as lightly as possible, remember that the sanity, insanity or point-of-view of the narrator are sometimes not fully revealed until the end of a book. I’ll be writing briefly about each book, it is possible that some of the story will be spoiled for you if you’ve never read it. If you’re one of those types that is sensitive about spoilers, skip past any title you haven’t read.
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The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe
Probably one of the most famous examples of an insane narrator, the story follows a character who insists on his sanity after murdering an old man. From an unrelenting feel of paranoia throughout the story to the sound of a dead man’s heart beating under the floorboards, you’re aware from line one that you’re in the head of an unwell man.
Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane
Sometimes, the mere premise of a novel threatens to give away the twist at the end of the book. For some, this is the case with Shutter Island – a book set in a hospital for the criminally insane practically telegraphs that there will be some insane shenanigans. Author Lehane does an excellent job getting you inside the head of main character Teddy Daniels (especially with graphic flashbacks to WW II and Dachau), and leaves the reader questioning just what, if anything, is real and not just in Teddy’s mind. With more twists that a mountain road, the fact that the main character is not well is only the first of many shocking revelations.
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
Investment banker Patrick Bateman already has plenty of problems that are pretty obvious at the start of American Psycho – in a breathless stream of consciousness narrative, the reader gets a good taste of Bateman’s distaste for everyone and everything. As the novel progresses, Bateman becomes more and more violent, still retaining a cold and detached tone. On top of this, he starts seeing hallucinations, like walking benches and talking cheerios.
Going Rogue by Sarah Palin
Joking! If you’re offended, just substitute the title of the inevitable memoir from your least-favorite politician.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
The story of an Oregon mental asylum is told by one of the patients, the docile “Chief” Bromden. You’d expect a character who is a mental patient to be on the unreliable end of narrators, and the Chief doesn’t disappoint. While Bromden’s narrative is pretty straightforward, the descriptions of “The Combine” (machines that control the world), people growing and shrinking, and walls oozing slime are reminders that everything isn’t quite as it seems in his head.
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
This is probably one of the most famous recent examples, due to the popularity of both the book and the Fincher-directed movie. Spoiler alert; the unnamed main character and his idol Tyler Durden are the same character. Fight Club is truly one of those books where this kind of revelation makes the subsequent readings much more enjoyable. Palahniuk does a great job of planting the seeds of the narrator’s insanity throughout the story, and there are plenty to be found from the very first pages.
What are your favorite books with unreliable or down-right insane points of view?