Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading has a great post on first-person narration. Scott says:
“Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier seems to me to possess precisely those virtues to which the novel narrated in the first-person is best suited. Often in first-person novels, the narrator is magically able to relate her story with the polish and skill of a novelist, and no effort is ever made to address why an otherwise ordinary person possesses such sharp storytelling abilities. The Good Soldier strikes me as such an accomplishment because Ford does not only provide us with a narrator whose storytelling skills are realistically diminished; he also integrates the narrator's diminished capacity into a portrayal of his character and an investigation into how the memory works and how we draw out memories by stringing them into stories.
A useful comparison: The Good Soldier very much brings to mind the novels of Kazuo Ishiguro. As with Ishiguro's novels, Ford's proceeds along the winding, backtracking path of a mind mulling over a certain period of life. This kind of storytelling might be called disorganized organization; that is, in its purposeful aimlessness, it attempts to resemble the workings of a human mind as it gives shape to a mass of memories. As such, at many points in both authors' works the entire basis of the plot changes as the narrator recalls a previously forgotten fact. We jump back and forth in time according to the narrator's whim. Revelations that would generally sit at the apex of a climax are made here almost casually.”
You can read the rest here. Several months ago, I read The Good Soldier in an experimental fiction class I took with Nick Arvin, author of Articles of War. There was a great deal of discussion about this particular narrator’s flakiness. Some found it enhanced the story and some found it frustrating.
Craft books typically describe the first person point of view as useful when the narrator has a particularly unusual voice. What I’ve never read about until now is that the narrator’s unreliability may be and possibly should be integral to the structure of the narrative. Scott’s essay clearly illustrates this point.
I recently read The Raw Shark Texts, by Steven Hall and Time’s Arrow, by Martin Amis; two books with unreliable narrators. Both stories use plot devices that alter memory and the natural flow of time. Consequently, the structures of both novels are somewhat disorienting. I think it's a matter of reader taste as to whether one enjoys this type of book or not.
Some of the most well known fictional characters are unreliable narrators, including Holden Caulfield, Nick Carraway, Huck Finn and Humbert Humbert. Who are your favorite unreliable narrators? Have you ever noticed a narrator's diminished capacity to relate a story as an integral part of the novel's structure? Do you find it enhances or takes away from your enjoyment of the book? Other thoughts on the unreliable narrator?