Ah, the seduction of the unreliable narrator. The inescapable charm of the despicable Tom Ripley in the fantastic psychological thriller, The Talented Mr Ripley. The beautiful inconsistencies of the three narratives in the extraordinary and uncatgorizable House of Leaves. The teenage angst that colors Holden Caulfield’s world view in Catcher in the Rye. Humbert Humbert’s self-delusion in Lolita. The unnamed narrator and ambiguous “ghost” story of The Turn of the Screw. The secrets and sins of omission in Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
Even in nonfiction: Susan Bergman’s poetic memoir, Anonymity, and her sister, Anne Heche’s very different version of their shared childhood in her memoir, Call Me Crazy. One, if not both, of these “narrators” would appear to be unreliable and the result, when read together, is delicious.
Recently I’ve read a few books applauded for their unreliable narrators. An unreliable narrator can be an effective and fascinating literary device. But the narrator must be developed and the tool utilized. An unreliable narrator is not an excuse for lazy writing.
The following are a) not acceptable as literary devices and b) are still not acceptable literary devices just because they are coupled with an unreliable narrator:
1) Surprise! It was all a dream.
2) The only witness can’t remember what happened, but then–surprise!–she does remember what happened.
3) Surprise! The narrator has been lying the whole time and the reader finds out because they’re told that the narrator has been lying the whole time.
Give me hints, clues, realizations, discoveries. I’m willing to work when I read; I expect writers to work when they write.