Fiction with unusual narrators
April 3, 2012 8:14 AM   Subscribe

Reccommend me some fiction with unusual narrators!

I'd like to read some books (or short stories) with narrators or point of view characters who are unusual, in some way significant to the narration. This could be a lot of things: Non-human? A dog or a tree or a fungus? Non-alive? A house or a stone? A being of multiple minds? An atom?

I'd prefer something in which there is some essential quality to the narrative itself which is altered by the narrator, as opposed to those in which the narration is human-like or indistinguishable from a normal human narration. For example, I've read Three Bags Full (POV characters = sheep) but found that it wasn't convincingly sheep-like enough to be interesting. Obviously there is a fine line to be walked here, in making a narration alien but also intelligible. But surely there must be something out there.
posted by marginaliana to Writing & Language (60 answers total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Dave Eggers has a story from the point of view of a dog ("After I was Thrown in the River and Before I Drowned"). It's terrible, imo.

A better example might be Leon Rooke's Shakespeare's Dog. Here's a review.
posted by mattbucher at 8:20 AM on April 3, 2012

You might be interested in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time - the narrator is human, but autistic.
posted by usonian at 8:21 AM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

The Book Thief is narrated by Death.
posted by Wolfster at 8:24 AM on April 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

The audience-viewpoint character in Roger Zelazny's "A Night in the Lonesome October" is Snuff, a dog who is the magical familiar to Jack the Ripper.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:24 AM on April 3, 2012

Feersum Endjinn by Iain M. Banks is a sci-fi novel, a quarter of which is told by a dyslexic character, phonetically.

It can take some getting used to.

Sample text, from Wikipedia: "Woak up. Got dresd. Had brekfast. Spoke wif Ergates thi ant who sed itz juss been wurk wurk wurk 4 u lately master Bascule, Y dont u ½ a holiday? & I agreed & that woz how we decided we otter go 2 c Mr Zoliparia in thi I-ball ov thi gargoyle Rosbrith.
posted by zarq at 8:26 AM on April 3, 2012

Timbuktu by Paul Auster (dog)
Room by Emma Donoghue (5 year old)
posted by eunoia at 8:27 AM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding Room. The narrator is actually a very special five-year-old, and his first person perspective is really fascinating.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:29 AM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's very close 3rd person rather than 1st, but Joseph McElroy's Plus is told from the point of view of a disembodied brain in space, gradually achieving self-awareness.
posted by neroli at 8:31 AM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Have you read Watership Down? It's a story about, and told by, rabbits, and is deeply intertwined with this hypothetical rabbit culture, language, and mythology.
posted by restless_nomad at 8:35 AM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Flowers for Algernon?
posted by Lucinda at 8:35 AM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem. The narrator has Tourette's Syndrome.
posted by Dragonness at 8:35 AM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Singularity by Alison M. Dickson
posted by dgeiser13 at 8:38 AM on April 3, 2012

William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury in narrated, in part, by an autistic boy.
posted by jquinby at 8:39 AM on April 3, 2012

The White Bone by Barbara Gowdy is told from the point of view of an elephant. No, really. It's really good.
posted by matildaben at 8:39 AM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Dogsbody by Dianne Wynne Jones is told from the perspective of a dog/alien-star-being, and a delight to read.

And google brought me to this: Books with unique 'narrators' on LibraryThing.
posted by viggorlijah at 8:40 AM on April 3, 2012

Carmichael's Dog is narrated by the sloth demon Odvart, who has taken up residence in Carmichael's head.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 8:48 AM on April 3, 2012

"I mean, dance is all right, even street dance. It's the poetry of the body, flesh aspiring to grace or inviting the spirit in to visit," he muses, but before all else, the Bear's heart belongs to jazz. This is, in fact, one alto-sax-playing, Shakespeare-allusion-dropping, mystically inclined Bear, and he's finally fed up with passing the hat. One night he sneaks out to a jazz club and ...
The Bear Comes Home by Rafi Zabor
posted by dancestoblue at 8:48 AM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Saturn's Children by MeFi's own cstross is narrated by an android who was originally designed to be a sexy plaything for humans, but now that humans have all died off, she's at a bit of loose ends.
posted by Quietgal at 8:49 AM on April 3, 2012

Through the Arc of the Rainforest is an interesting bit of magical realism narrated by a small ball floating in midair in front of one of the characters.
posted by illenion at 8:49 AM on April 3, 2012

You might want to check out the novel of Trainspotting. The story swaps between narrators, each of which has their own narrative style. For instance, Renton's chapters are written entirely in the Scots dialect.

There are also entire chapters of Tom Robbins' novel Skinny Legs and All narrated by a can of beans, a dirty sock, a spoon, a painted stick and a conch shell, although the narrative style remains the same as the rest of the book.
posted by fight or flight at 8:53 AM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My Name is Red is written from multiple first person POV, including inanimate objects and colors. It's also a very good murder mystery set in medieval Turkey.
posted by endless_forms at 8:55 AM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you don't mind graphic novels, you could also look at We3. The main characters are a weaponised dog, cat and rabbit, who communicate using simplistic language ("IS GUD DOG").

Be warned: it's really, really sad.
posted by fight or flight at 8:58 AM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides. Narrator and protagonist Cal Stephanides (initially called "Callie") is a hermaphrodite man of Greek descent with a condition known as 5-alpha-reductase deficiency, which causes him to have certain feminine traits.
posted by Obscure Reference at 9:02 AM on April 3, 2012

Fools' Experiments by Edward M. Lerner has whole sections written from the POV of some sentient software.
posted by dgeiser13 at 9:08 AM on April 3, 2012

Cujo and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest come immediately to mind.
posted by MrMoonPie at 9:10 AM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

This may not exactly be what you're looking for in that the narrator is not unusual, per se, as in a kid or an inanimate object or something. However, since someone has already mentioned Paul Auster, I'll add that Auster is pretty well known for unusual narrative devices. For instance, his novel Invisible is... OK, unusual. I'll leave it there, so as not to spoil it.
posted by emelenjr at 9:11 AM on April 3, 2012

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein is narrated by a dog. My mom read it and loved it. I read it and thought it was passable as extremely popular fiction, though not a heavy hitter.
posted by glaucon at 9:21 AM on April 3, 2012

Best answer: How far back do you want to go? "It-narratives" were a big thing in the eighteenth century--the most famous today are Chrysal; Or, The Adventures of a Guinea and The History of Pompey the Little.

Alfred K. Bester's "Fondly Fahrenheit" has a wonderfully mixed-up narrator or narrators: the POV shifts between first person (human), first person (android), first person plural (human and android), and third person, sometimes all in the same paragraph. It's very definitely related to the plot.
posted by thomas j wise at 9:34 AM on April 3, 2012

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka.
posted by HandfulOfDust at 9:55 AM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Roaches Have No King, which may also be known by its alternate title of Unnatural Selection, by Daniel Evan Weiss, is narrated by a cockroach named Numbers living in a New York City apartment.
posted by skybluepink at 10:20 AM on April 3, 2012

A bit of a stretch, but The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness is set in a society where everyone can hear the thoughts of men and lifestock, so you frequently hear animals' thoughts throughout the book. I read it recently and quite enjoyed it - looking forward to the rest of the trilogy.
posted by widdershins at 10:22 AM on April 3, 2012

Best answer: An atom?

Cosmicomics by Calvino fits this bill, and is basically also totally awesome.

Wittgenstein's Mistress is narrated by an elderly woman who is either going senile or crazy or drying - it's unclear. But very compelling and beautiful and strange.

You might be interested in Pessoa, who wrote in these sort of other personalities called heteronyms.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:24 AM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

In addition to the (living, human) main narrator, Please Ignore Vera Dietz has sections narrated by a ghost and by the town pagoda.
posted by johnofjack at 11:18 AM on April 3, 2012

The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr by E.T.A. Hoffmann.

This may be a bit of a stretch but the I would argue the dual narrative structure of the book would fit your requirement:

in which there is some essential quality to the narrative itself which is altered by the narrator
posted by moxiequz at 11:20 AM on April 3, 2012

Animal Narrators:

Watership Down has already been mentioned (and that's a good book!).

The Guardians of Ga'hoole YA series. The protagonists are owls. I read the first in the series out of curiosity. The author obviously is interested in owls and includes real but gross owl stuff like owl pellets, which is a plus (for my kids, dissecting owl pellets in elementary school was a high point of their science education), but the writing is very basic even for YA fiction.

Timbuktu, a dog narrator, has already been mentioned, too.

Sweet William, Black Beauty-- horse narrators. Black Beauty is old and flowery and perhaps does not age so well, but it did spawn a whole genre known as Pony books.

The Book of Night with Moon, narrated by a cat with magical powers (!) is the first in a series of Grand Central Cats books by Diane Duane. She writes YA fiction and this series is a sort of spin-off of her Young Wizards series, though surprisingly the cat books are considered more adult and a bit darker than her usual YA fare.

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents--In Terry Pratchett's Discworld novel about a Pied Piper scam, Maurice is not, as you might suppose, the piper, but the true mastermind behind the scam, a cat. The book is not strictly narrated by Maurice, or the educated rodents, but they are (cleverly crafted, anthropomorphized) main characters in the book.

Otherworldly Narrators:

Wicked is told from the point of view of the much-maligned "Wicked" Witch.

God Emperor of Dune by Frank Herbert. The Dune series constantly switches from narrator to narrator, many of them strange, including telepathic mentats, Bene Generrit witches and a child possessed by the spirit of her dead grandfather. In God Emperor of Dune, the narrator is Leto Atreides II, the son of Paul (Muad'dib) Atreides, who transforms into...look, he's just an incredibly bizarre narrator, take it from me, okay?

I had high hopes for The Book Thief, mentioned above, where Death is the narrator. The concept is certainly original. Excerpts intrigued me. But when I actually bought the book, I found the story so disjointed I just couldn't get into it. It's one of the very few books I didn't even bother to finish. Maybe it gets better if you stick with it? I don't know. I still feel some of the prose is lovely, but it just didn't work for me, much as I wanted it to.

Interesting human narrators:

Blindsight begins with the most amazing, could stand-alone first chapter in a SF novel I've ever read, with the possible exception of Snowcrash. The narrator has, literally, half a brain. It also includes a badass space vampire.

Elie Wiesel's Night is a first-hand account of the Holocaust from a Jewish man who was imprisoned in Auschwitz. It's stark and brutal and highly recommended.

A murder mystery, as told from the POV of a woman with Alzheimer's: Turn of Mind. If you like mysteries, Agatha Christie had a number of books where her narrators are...unusual. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a fantastic example, as is And Then There Were None, but I won't link to book descriptions because if you decide to read mysteries, you should go in without spoilers.

The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night, written from the perspective of a boy who is autistic, has also already been mentioned.

Begin Rant:
That Wikipedia entry on Faulkner's Sound and the Fury needs some serious editing.

It accepts as fact and promotes a theory that Benjy suffered from autism, even though Faulkner, the author, was clear after the book's publication that he envisioned and created Benjy as a severely mentally deficient adult.

The title makes no sense if we see Benjy as autistic, either. Faulkner chose it from the famous soliloquy in Shakespeare's Macbeth because he felt it was apropos:

"...Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing."

While it is an interesting thought experiment to examine Benjy's character and suggest he has characteristics of the severely autistic, there is absolutely no reason to state it as fact. I'm surprised Wikipedia editors haven't been all over that entry, asking for citations and warning it may be biased, like they routinely do when an entry's objectivity is questioned.

It's easy to come up with literary theories--heck, I wrote a total load-of-crap paper in college arguing The Sound and the Fury's various narrators represented the Id, Ego and Superego segments of the human psyche--but that doesn't mean those theories should be presented as fact.

/end rant

posted by misha at 11:47 AM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding Wittgenstein's Mistress. It's one of my favorite novels, but it's the one I struggle the most to explain to others, because she's either the last woman left alive on earth, or not. In any case her loneliness is driving her insane. It's beautifully written.
posted by spunweb at 12:01 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott. It's about a girl who was kidnapped when she was 8. Her kidnapper/rapist/abuser has had her for 5 years, and she's allowed to leave the house, etc., because he knows where her parents live and has told her he'll kill them if she runs.

It's an extended meditation on lonliness and adults' ability to ignore the suffering of children when a "parent" passes as "normal."

Another REALLY great one is Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson. It's a very graphic discussion of eating disorders, including scent/food based hallucinations as the narrator falls prey to her depression and anorexia. It's more strikingly unusual than Speak because of how much Anderson plays around with the placement of text on the page.
posted by spunweb at 12:07 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Julian Barnes's A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters" and David Mitchell's Ghostwritten are novels made out of short interconnected stories, some of which have unexpected or unusual narrators just like you describe.

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn and Never Let Me Go are both books where you get the idea fairly early that the narrator isn't a conventional human, but requires you to figure out in what way a lot sooner than they fill you in. Also both amazing, incredible books in their own right.

Lemony Snickett's Series of Unfortunate Events books have a human narrator, but it takes you all the way to the last book in the series to figure out who the narrator is or what their relation is to the protagonists, and it's told in a very wry tone of voice.
posted by Mchelly at 12:24 PM on April 3, 2012

A Curious Case of the Dog in the Nighttime, as mentioned above, is great. Also The Lovely Bones is written from the perspective of a young girl who was killed.
posted by radioamy at 12:43 PM on April 3, 2012

Nancy Kress's novella Dancing on Air is partly narrated by a genetically enhanced guard dog. The dog's at about the level of a six-year-old, and what he understands (and what he doesn't) are a big part of the way the story unfolds. It's fantastic, one of the best uses of an unusual point of view I've ever read. It's in her collection Beaker's Dozen which seems to be out of print. It's well worth tracking down a used copy or checking it out from the library.

Jo Walton's short story On the Wall is told from the point of view of a magic mirror.
posted by creepygirl at 1:36 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Traveller narrated by Robert E Lee's horse.
posted by mearls at 1:46 PM on April 3, 2012

Set This House in Order: A Romance of Souls has a conventional narrator who suffers from dissociative identity disorder.
posted by kettleoffish at 3:59 PM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you don't mind graphic novels, you could also look at We3. The main characters are a weaponised dog, cat and rabbit, who communicate using simplistic language ("IS GUD DOG").

In a similar vein, the protagonists in Pride of Baghdad are a group of lions that escape from a zoo during a bombing raid in Baghdad in 2003.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 5:00 PM on April 3, 2012

The Radleys by Matt Haig- modern-day vampires who pass as human and live amongst them
The Witches by Roald Dahl- boy who is turned into a mouse by witches
The Chrysalids- telepath child who is living in society which punishes 'mutations'
Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi- PR agent who must help ugly aliens 'come out' to Earth
I, Row-Boat by Corey Doctorow- sentient row-boat narrator
The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue- changeling who replaces young boy and takes on his life
Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin- lady coroner in medieval Cambridge
Cycler by Lauren McLaughlin- girl who changes into a boy for several days each month
Before I go to Sleep by SJ Watson- women with amnesia who forgets each day as she sleeps
posted by JoannaC at 5:31 PM on April 3, 2012

The Onion used to run a regular column all about this, Ask A Fax Machine, Ask A raffic Cone, Ask a Worker Bee, etc. They where pretty funny and clever.
posted by The Whelk at 6:08 PM on April 3, 2012

Books with interesting human narrators who are characters in their own right:

Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
posted by Zebulias at 8:12 PM on April 3, 2012

Zombie is narrated by a Dahmer-like serial killer.
posted by Gator at 8:28 PM on April 3, 2012

I really enjoyed the narrator from The Good Soldier. I don't want to ruin it, but the way the character reveals himself is quite disturbing.
posted by princeoftheair at 8:35 PM on April 3, 2012

2nding "Set This House in Order". marginaliana, I believe in this book's greatness so much that if you send me a memail with a shipping address, I'll send you one of the loaner copies I have. Of course, if your profile is up-to-date, you may have plenty of access to books.
posted by Gorgik at 9:34 PM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Soldier of the Mist, by Gene Wolfe, is narrated by a man whose memory resets every moment, and the whole novel is in the form of notes he writes to himself to remember what's important. It's set in ancient Greece, and is fantasy, but it's very light fantasy. There are sequels.
posted by Rinku at 2:40 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Philip Roth's The Breast is a riff on The Metamorphosis where a guy turns into a huge, um, breast.
posted by ifjuly at 5:02 AM on April 4, 2012

Also, Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red has different POVs for each chapter, and some of them are unusual--a coin, a dead person, etc.
posted by ifjuly at 5:06 AM on April 4, 2012

The Collector Collector by Tibor Fischer ~ Narrated by an antique bowl
posted by dgeiser13 at 5:57 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell has 6 different narrators that range from a 19th century explorer to a post-apocalyptic oracle.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a series of letters from a boy named Charlie, directed towards the reader. A personal favorite!
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 6:15 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you everyone for this flood of recommendations! I'll be starting with My Name is Red and Shakespeare's Dog, but I've added the others to my "to read" list at the library and hope to make my way through them all. It's particularly interesting to see that, of the animal narrators/POV characters, dogs seem to be the most popular. On reflection, that doesn't really surprise me, though, since it seems like it would be a fairly easy way to offer a new take on a human experience.
posted by marginaliana at 6:36 AM on April 4, 2012

Another dog one - Woolf's Flush. The dog (Elizabeth Barrett Browning's spaniel) is not actually the narrator, but is the main point of view.
posted by paduasoy at 9:21 AM on April 6, 2012

I remember my mom telling me some years ago about a novel(?) narrated by the element Fire. I seem to recall, perhaps wrongly, that it was part of a series that included other elements. She doesn't remember it well, but thinks it was called, simply, Fire. I'm not able to craft a good enough Google or Amazon search to confirm this, but hope someone remembers more about it.
posted by QuakerMel at 7:52 PM on April 7, 2012

Coming late, but it's hard to beat Sensation by Nick Mamatas for an unusual (collective, parasitic) narrator.
posted by tangerine at 10:34 PM on April 9, 2012

« Older Make my stereo glitter and hum.   |   So Betty and HP go on an adventure Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.