"It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream."
January 27, 2012 2:17 PM   Subscribe

Looking for novels with first-person narrators, in the style of Conrad's Heart of Darkness (specifically Marlow), E.L. Doctorow's Homer & Langley, Sandor Marai's Embers, etc.

In each of these novels, the narrator is explicitly aware of the act of storytelling, and at some point or another acknowledges his listeners/audience. As my examples suggest, I am particularly interested in novels set in (or recollecting) the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but any timeframe is fine, really. I am not a sci-fi or fantasy reader, so that's my one limit on preferences. Unreliable narrators and slippery/ambiguous narratives especially welcome!
posted by scody to Media & Arts (35 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Jailbird and Mother Night, both by Kurt Vonnegut.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:22 PM on January 27, 2012

The Catcher In The Rye!
posted by SisterHavana at 2:24 PM on January 27, 2012

"The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" by Agatha Christie, for sure!
posted by warble at 2:24 PM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was going to suggest virtually anything by Vonnegut.

also, Life of Pi (I think, it's been a few years)
posted by mannequito at 2:25 PM on January 27, 2012

The Kill-Off, by Jim Thompson is an interesting variation on this, where there is ostensibly one overarching plot, but each chapter cycles through different first-person narrators. It's a whodunnit gone upside-down and inside-out.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:26 PM on January 27, 2012

"The Great Gatsby" is, I think, the classic in this genre. Nick Carraway seems to be himself writing a book about the events centered around Gatsby.
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:30 PM on January 27, 2012

Response by poster: Oh, one more characteristic to help refine what I'm looking for: the narrator is in a specific location while telling the story (e.g., Marlow is on the boat, telling his story to the others to pass the time; Homer is [POSSIBLE SPOILER] trapped in his room, typing on his typewriter to the outside world, etc.).

Thanks for the responses so far -- can't believe I forgot Gatsby and some others!
posted by scody at 2:33 PM on January 27, 2012

Remains of the Day.
posted by Melismata at 2:38 PM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Diary of a Rapist, by Evan S. Connell, if diaries count.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:39 PM on January 27, 2012

You Shall Know Our Velocity - Dave Eggers

Actually, get Sacrament, the later edition with a special section by the other character, Hand.
posted by feistycakes at 2:43 PM on January 27, 2012

In Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome (1911, so it fits your timeline) the unnamed first-person narrator does note that he is stating his own vision of Frome's story.
posted by bcwinters at 2:49 PM on January 27, 2012

Fingersmith, Sarah Waters
The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 2:52 PM on January 27, 2012

I just read Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas (in translation, although now I want to reread it in Spanish), and it is in the form of a lecture being delivered by a writer not unlike Vila-Matas himself.

Also, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison has a narrator very conscious of his audience and his location.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:03 PM on January 27, 2012

It's not exactly a novel, but I think the Rime of the Ancient Mariner meets the rest of your criteria. Maybe the Divine Comedy as well.
posted by burden at 3:14 PM on January 27, 2012

posted by synecdoche at 3:17 PM on January 27, 2012

(Re: Moby-Dick, see especially the chapter "The Town-Ho's Story," maybe, for the sense of place you are talking about.)
posted by synecdoche at 3:17 PM on January 27, 2012

The OG on this, at least in English, may be Tristram Shandy.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:19 PM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Maybe also The Turn of the Screw? There are various layers of filtering, there, but it starts out with people gathered around a fire telling ghost stories.
posted by synecdoche at 3:35 PM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

The first three books in the John Carter of Mars series by Edgar Rice Burroughs.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 3:37 PM on January 27, 2012

No express acknowledgement of the reader that I recall, but I love the way this approach works in Rebecca.
posted by bearwife at 3:42 PM on January 27, 2012

My favorite examples of this were Lolita and The Sound and the Fury, although in the latter, the narrator isn't always aware they are telling the story. Bonus points for extra unreliable narrators, though?
posted by chatongriffes at 3:49 PM on January 27, 2012

Nabokov and Eco spring to mind. For Nabokov, "Lolita" and "Pale Fire". Eco, "The Island of the Day Before", and, if I remember correctly, "Foucault's Pendulum". Maybe others too, for both of those authors - I remember Nabokov's short stories are full of things like this, and there are probably other books by him or by Eco that I'm not remembering well enough to say for sure, or that I haven't read yet.
posted by Flunkie at 3:53 PM on January 27, 2012

The Book Thief
posted by backwards guitar at 3:54 PM on January 27, 2012

Oh, and Italo Calvino's "If on a Winter's Night a Traveler" is, shall we say, extremely aware of the reader.
posted by Flunkie at 3:56 PM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Book of the New Sun tetralogy by Gene Wolfe is nominally SF, but don't let that put you off. One of the finest works of literature in any genre.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 4:03 PM on January 27, 2012

Joseph Conrad's Marlowe tells three other stories in Conrad's writing: "Lord Jim" (my favorite Conrad) and "Chance" are third person, but the short story "Youth," aka "Youth, a narrative" is a tale tolf by an older Marlowe to his mariner peers. (I had to look Marlowe up because I couldn't remember "Chance," and I note that Wikipedia refers to such tales within narratives as "framed narratives."

I'll second Umberto Eco's "Foucault's Pendulum," whose first-person protagonist is hiding in a small submarine in a museum. "Island of the Day Before," has a sort of super-narrator, not unlike the character who views Marlowe before recording his tale, because the narrator is reading the written notes of the main character who, before long, assumes control over the novel without any prodding from the reader of his notes.

I can also confirm that "Life of Pi" fits the bill.

There are numerous good movies that do this; I wonder if any of them are based on books that do the same; for example, both "Slumdog Millionaire" and "The Usual Suspects" are 99% told in flashback during police interrogations.
posted by Sunburnt at 4:09 PM on January 27, 2012

Q & A, the novel by Vikas Swarup on which Slumdog Millionaire is based, is indeed framed as the transcript of a police interrogation. It's an interesting book.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:25 PM on January 27, 2012

All of the Nero Wolfe stories from Rex Stout are like that. The narrator is Archie Goodwin.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:40 PM on January 27, 2012

Find a collection of H.P. Lovecraft's short stories.
posted by hermitosis at 5:53 PM on January 27, 2012

What was she thinking, by Zoë Heller
The story is told (unreliably) "to set the record straight" by a truly excellent character, one of my favorites in literature.

Johnny got his gun, by Dalton Trumbo
Wanders between first and third person, as the narrator sometimes thinks of himself in third person, so I think it counts. The story is told from a very specific location.
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 7:01 PM on January 27, 2012

Find a collection of H.P. Lovecraft's short stories.

Funnily enough, I just re-opened this thread to recommend At the Mountains of Madness. The narrator is the quintessential Lovecraftian antihero - the breathless scientist warning us of ineffable danger.

Yeah, it's technically horror, but it's horror done as drily as an encyclopedia.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:52 PM on January 27, 2012

Frankenstein has framing narratives up the wazoo.

Charlotte Bronte's books usually refer to the audience. Jane Eyre's famous "Reader, I married him." Villette did that too.
posted by book 'em dano at 8:18 PM on January 27, 2012

For something really convoluted, long, complex and surreal, Gunter Gräss' Dog Years is narrated from the viewpoint of one of the protagonists recalling & describing the war and its immediate aftermath from a post-war vantage point. A section of it is in the form of letters, written as reminiscences from one character to another. It's one of my top five books of all time.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:02 PM on January 27, 2012

Gulliver's Travels is great. Gulliver is always addressing the reader and taking great pains to prove his veracity while, at the same time, undermining it (particularly in the Brobdingnag section).
posted by CCCC at 3:43 PM on January 28, 2012

If you're up for short stories: Richard Ford's "Rock Springs."

Would you think he was anybody like you? Goosebumps.
posted by tangerine at 10:50 PM on January 28, 2012

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