Rashomon-style novels?
January 13, 2012 10:42 AM   Subscribe

I read An Instance of the Fingerpost, which presents four narrators remembering one event, and loved it. I also love epistolary novels (oh, Dracula) for the same reason, but most of them don't quite play with narrator unreliability enough. What other Rashomon-style novels are there? Or, barring that, other dense, complex novels with one extremely unreliable narrator?
posted by flibbertigibbet to Media & Arts (37 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
House of Leaves.
posted by empath at 10:44 AM on January 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

The narrator in any Bret Easton Ellis novel is almost inherently unreliable. The Rules Of Attraction features three main narrators and a host of secondary ones.
posted by griphus at 10:46 AM on January 13, 2012

Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun.

I loved An Instance of the Fingerpost too, by the way. I was shouting with excitement by the end of the last part.
posted by winna at 10:46 AM on January 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

You might enjoy "The Prestige", which a movie was based on (but the two differ significantly) a few years back.
posted by brentajones at 10:50 AM on January 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Pale Fire, by Nabokov. Not exactly epistolary, but plays with unreliable narration and annotation.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 10:57 AM on January 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Surreallist writer Raymond Queneau wrote a book called "Exercices de style" which is a brief description of an encounter at a bus stop told from 99 different viewpoints. Published in French in 1947, translated into English by Barbara Wright in 1958.
posted by crazylegs at 10:58 AM on January 13, 2012

Sounds like you want Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone.
posted by dlugoczaj at 11:01 AM on January 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

The Egyptologist by Arthur Philips.
posted by ShooBoo at 11:04 AM on January 13, 2012

Sort-of-mefi's-own Jeff Vandermeer's Shriek: An Afterword is both epistolary and all about unreliable narrators.
posted by kittenmarlowe at 11:05 AM on January 13, 2012

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov is the OG on this. Unless the OG on this is James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:07 AM on January 13, 2012

Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury and Richardson's Clarissa come to mind.
posted by MrMoonPie at 11:07 AM on January 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Nabokov's Lolita features an unreliable narrator.
posted by number9dream at 11:07 AM on January 13, 2012

Most of Gene Wolfe's novels have a narrator who is unreliable in some way (whether through commission or omission). The Book of the New Sun has already been mentioned, but I'll also add Peace (a lot of people read the whole book without discovering the narrator's main secret) and The Book of the Short Sun (in which it's often not clear who the narrator actually is).

The Quincunx by Charles Palliser is a historical novel that's fun for a lot of the same reasons that An Instance of the Fingerpost is. The narrator isn't all that unreliable, but you have to piece together a lot of the underlying plot and structure yourself, since some important parts are never explicitly provided.
posted by dfan at 11:08 AM on January 13, 2012

Not sure about dense, but epistolary: World War Z.
posted by DisreputableDog at 11:24 AM on January 13, 2012

Esther Summerson, the narrator of Bleak House, is annoyingly unreliable, possibly, as Wikipedia suggests, due to Victorian conventions that encouraged women to be excessively modest.
Esther's portion of the narrative is an interesting case study of the Victorian ideal of feminine modesty. She introduces herself thus: "I have a great deal of difficulty in beginning to write my portion of these pages, for I know I am not clever" (chap. 3). This claim is almost immediately belied by the astute moral judgement and satiric observation that characterise her pages, and it remains unclear how much knowledge she withholds from her narration, or why someone who has chosen to relate the story of her life should be so coy about her own central place in it. In the same introductory chapter, she writes: "It seems so curious to me to be obliged to write all this about myself! As if this narrative were the narrative of MY life! But my little body will soon fall into the background now" (chap. 3). This does not turn out to be true.
posted by MsMolly at 11:32 AM on January 13, 2012

Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters. Here's a link to the first chapter. One of the most cleverly structured novels I've read, and a page turner, to boot.

In re Nabokov --- Pretty much everything Nabokov ever wrote features an unreliable narrator, up to and including his memoir. (hi, my name is Diablevert, and I am a Nabokov super-fan.) But I would say Pale Fire is the only one that has the bifurcated quality that Fingerpost has, where you as reader have to figure out the real story by linking together events as described by two people with different and conflicting points of view.
posted by Diablevert at 11:33 AM on January 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

The Moonstone yes yes, and when you're done you can read The Woman in White (with a whole chapter from the villain's POV), and No Name, and Aramadale.. Wilkie Collins is the past master of the multi-narrators-with-conflicting-motivations novel.

A not entirely successful, but still a highly interesting experiment is Under Western Eyes, a Conrad novel that is purported written by English professor transcribing the memoirs of a Russian spy. The places where the actual narrator breaks into remind you that he's only imagining or transcribing stuff are pretty jarring, but the reluctant double-agent Razumov is a fascinating creation and there are some great moments of irony with the narrator thing.
posted by Erasmouse at 11:34 AM on January 13, 2012

Dhalgren by Delany
posted by Katine at 11:36 AM on January 13, 2012

Transition by Iain M. Banks
The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes
Engine Summer by John Crowley
Liar by Justine Larbalestier
Asylum by Patrick McGrath
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
Bad Monkeys by Matt Ruff
Only Forward by Michael Marshall Smith
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
posted by dgeiser13 at 11:52 AM on January 13, 2012

Its narration might actually be more fragmented than you're wanting, but Faulkner's As I Lay Dying is definitely worth mentioning in this context. I'd also recommend Graham Swift's Last Orders; it has four narrators (IIRC, it's been a while since I read it), so its fragmented narration is more Fingerpost-like in scale.
posted by sixo33 at 11:53 AM on January 13, 2012

Oh, how could I forget Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet? Four novels, each going over many of the same events, each by a different unreliable narrator, often contradicting (or filling in lacunae of) the others.
posted by dfan at 12:03 PM on January 13, 2012

Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon is as confusing and unreliable as it gets, but then again many people find him to be basically unreadable. Here's the book's first sentence:

"Snow-Balls have flown their Arcs, starr'd the Sides of Outbuildings, as of Cousins, carried Hats away into the brisk Wind off Delaware,— the Sleds are brought in and their Runners carefully dried and greased, shoes deposited in the back Hall, a stocking'd-foot Descent made upon the great Kitchen, in a purposeful Dither since Morning, punctuated by the ringing Lids of various Boilers and Stewing-Pots, fragrant with Pie-Spices, peel'd Fruits, Suet, heated Sugar,— the Children, having all upon the Fly, among rhythmic slaps of Batter and Spoon, coax'd and stolen what they might, proceed, as upon each afternoon all this snowy Advent, to a comfortable Room at the rear of the House, years since given over to their carefree Assaults."
posted by Pyrogenesis at 12:09 PM on January 13, 2012

Oh, please read The Slap -- it's excellent.
posted by caoimhe at 12:30 PM on January 13, 2012

I came here to suggest Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury and Durrell's Alexandria Quartet, but they've both been mentioned, so I guess I'm seconding them.

> Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon is as confusing and unreliable as it gets

That's as may be, but I don't think it's in any way an example of what the poster is asking for (much as I love Pynchon in general and this book in particular).
posted by languagehat at 1:08 PM on January 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Early adopter of An Instance of the Fingerpost here - loved it. If you liked that, you might like Stone's Fall, also by Iain Pears, also with some very unreliable narrating, with a skewed timeline and all in all a damn fine read.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 1:40 PM on January 13, 2012

I don't think The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, circa 2007, is much like Rashomon or An Instance, but it does have unreliable narrators and (recent) historical references. I enjoyed it.
posted by homelystar at 1:51 PM on January 13, 2012

The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford

(and seconding The Egyptologist, but only after you've read Pale Fire)
posted by BitterOldPunk at 2:00 PM on January 13, 2012

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder. His Ides of March is very similar in shifting perspectives and is also in letter form.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 2:29 PM on January 13, 2012

The Debt to Plasure has another unreliable narrator. Lovely writing about food, too.
posted by naturesgreatestmiracle at 4:14 PM on January 13, 2012

Augustus by John Edward Williams, which is an epistolary novel of the life of Caesar Augustus from his teens to his death. It won the National Book Award in 1973. I loved it.

I, Claudius by Robert Graves, is probably much the same. I've seen the BBC series from the 70s and this is on my short list to read.
posted by droplet at 4:37 PM on January 13, 2012

Seconding The Quincunx. The narrator is reliable enough, but he's trying to piece together a story from lots of unreliable informants. At nearly 800 pages, it's plenty dense and complex, and it's a vivid account of the misery of being down and out in Victorian London.
posted by Quietgal at 4:58 PM on January 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox features an terrific unreliable narrator who unravels over a marvelously dense tale of revenge. Not epistolary per se but letters and diaries play a part.
posted by tinymojo at 5:36 PM on January 13, 2012

The Collector by John Fowles
posted by SNACKeR at 6:24 PM on January 13, 2012

The Insult, by Rupert Thomson. The main character is blind, but he refuses to admit that he is blind - as a matter of fact, he thinks he can see in the dark now. He questions everyone else's sanity when they don't "see" that he "can" see. One of the tensest books I've ever read. Also, it has one of the weirdest endings I've ever read.

Diary of a Rapist by Evan S. Connell. It's better than it sounds.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:18 PM on January 13, 2012

The Ring and the Book by Robert Browning is the story of a murder recounted from multiple competing perspectives, not unlike Rashomon
posted by communicator at 12:21 PM on January 14, 2012

Matt Ruff's fabulous Set This House in Order-the narrator has multiple personalities. Loved it.

posted by purenitrous at 3:19 PM on January 14, 2012

flibbertigibbet: "Or, barring that, other dense, complex novels with one extremely unreliable narrator?"

Nick Harkaway's Gone-Away World has one fairly unreliable narrator whose narrative hopscotches from his whimsical upbringing to a Catch-22-esque adulthood clear through to a existentialist post-apocalypse. What makes him unreliable is a bit of a spoiler, but it's a real fun ride on the way to finding out.
posted by Rhaomi at 9:43 PM on January 15, 2012

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