Wanted: Narrators with mental disabilities.
November 20, 2005 10:35 PM   Subscribe

LitFilter: Please help me find books, preferably novels, in which the narrator has some sort of mental disability.

Autism counts (Curious Incident). Tourettes counts (Motherless Brooklyn). Retardation in all forms counts (The Sound and the Fury). Schizophrenia would certainly count. Depression probably doesn't count, unless extremely debilitating (otherwise, too common). Hypochondria would probably count, but, again, only if severe. A pathological liar might count, too. Also, maybe, epilepsy. (I remember reading a memoir called Lying, that would count here in spite of not being fiction).

I'm most interested in cases where the disability affects the narrative voice, allowing a certain language-production that might otherwise be impermissible. (In Motherless Brooklyn, for example, even apart from the tourettes tics themselves, the fact of the tourettic narrator allows for certain metaphors and punning figures of speech which I suspect would fall flat or come off as too cute without the underlying disability to ground them.)

Though a narrator would be ideal, it's probably alright for examples to include non-narrating characters who are mentally disabled -- as long as the narrative voice is demonstrably tethered to theirs (most likely through free indirect discourse).

A sub-genre (or related genre) might include narrators who are precocious children, the youth and precosity maybe functioning similarly to a mental disorder in the other books. Also related may be non-native speaking narrators. But including these would make this question way too broad, so let's stick with disabilities.

(Note: I'm neither a grad student nor a professor, though I had once planned to be both, so this is just to help me satisfy a few curiousities. I hope I've made the question specific enough to avoid deletion.)
posted by nobody to Media & Arts (47 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time is narrated by a young, mildly autistic boy and is quite good.

And of course there's Of Mice and Men. Lenny is a wonderful, sad character, but not the narrator.
posted by luriete at 10:41 PM on November 20, 2005

Probably the most famous: Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes. Not strictly narrated, but a series of first-person jounal entries.
posted by deadfather at 10:44 PM on November 20, 2005

Flowers for Algernon?

The great thing about posting early is you get to volunteer the easy answers.
posted by Sfving at 10:45 PM on November 20, 2005

Or not.
posted by Sfving at 10:45 PM on November 20, 2005

I am the Cheese
posted by onalark at 10:48 PM on November 20, 2005

Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper
Dostoyevsky, Notes from the Underground
Exley, A Fan's Notes
Ginsberg, various poems written in and out of mental institutions, Kaddish, a long poem about his mother, Howl, obviously
posted by bardic at 10:50 PM on November 20, 2005

The Defense (aka The Luzhin Defense) by Vladimir Nabokov follows a man who is entirely fixated on chess and otherwise seemingly autistic. (It's also an excellent book)
posted by scodger at 10:50 PM on November 20, 2005

Elizabeth Moon, Speed of Dark
posted by polyglot at 10:53 PM on November 20, 2005

Primal Screamer by Nick Blinko
He has a form of schizophrenia (possibly schizoid), and though the first part is very rational, it gets very odd toward the end. It is semi-biographical and in the form of journal entries. Last I saw, this book was out of print and cost ridiculous amounts. Keep an eye out for it. It'll be back in print sometime soon.
posted by frankie_stubbs at 10:57 PM on November 20, 2005

Also, try JG Ballard's experimental novels, such as Crash (widely available). Ballard usually creates disturbed societies where characters do not at all conform to what you would expect. His analysis of them is top notch. As for specific disorders, an extreme fixation on sexual aspects of automobile wrecks is a general outline of Crash.
posted by frankie_stubbs at 11:02 PM on November 20, 2005

A Confederacy of Dunces
posted by harmfulray at 11:15 PM on November 20, 2005

Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren has a lead who might be schizophrenic. A good deal of Philip K. Dick's output is suitably schizophrenic as well...Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said being an example I've read most recently...
posted by hototogisu at 11:17 PM on November 20, 2005

The Bell Jar, another obvious choice.
posted by ori at 11:23 PM on November 20, 2005

I think Don Quixote would apply.
posted by attercoppe at 11:46 PM on November 20, 2005

Also Fight Club.
posted by attercoppe at 11:47 PM on November 20, 2005

And that makes me think of Forrest Gump.

I should really put all these in one answer.
posted by attercoppe at 11:47 PM on November 20, 2005

Iain Banks' The Wasp Factory, if bugfuck crazy counts as a mental disability.

Second Speed of Dark.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:48 PM on November 20, 2005

Actually Banks has a whole pile of books you might find interesting (exploration of mind), even if they don't exactly fit your criteria (mental disability). Try Use of Weapons and The Bridge.

What about Greg Bear - Queen of Angels?
posted by polyglot at 12:02 AM on November 21, 2005

Philip K. Dick - A Scanner Darkly.

Also by PKD - VALIS, The Divine Invasion, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer.

Hell, almost any book by PKD has protaganists with mental issues. Except they're actually completely sane. But then they're not. And then they are. And not again. And are/not simultaneously but then their heads explode in a sniper shot of pink laser light from god and it doesn't even matter anyway.

I also recommend various Theodore Sturgeon short stories. A Touch of Strange, for example. Theodore Sturgeon has a gift for humanism that makes even a young Vonnegut look clumsy and brash.
posted by loquacious at 12:24 AM on November 21, 2005

Following ROU_Xenophobe's suggestion of bugfuck crazy as a mental disability, John Fowles' The Collector. Uh, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest? Nabokov's Pale Fire? Janet Frame's Faces on the Water. All less mental disability, more general craziness, but hopefully helpful.
posted by Felicity Rilke at 12:25 AM on November 21, 2005

I know This Much is True -- Wally Lamb. (Schizophrenia.)
posted by acoutu at 12:27 AM on November 21, 2005

I'll also add Marge Percy's Woman on the Edge of Time.
posted by loquacious at 1:06 AM on November 21, 2005

Catcher In The Rye.
posted by gfrobe at 1:16 AM on November 21, 2005

Nobody Nowhere : The Extraordinary Autobiography of an Autistic by Donna Williams
posted by mirileh at 3:03 AM on November 21, 2005

Aurélia by Gérard de Nerval is 'a document of dreams, obsession, and insanity [...] an account of Nerval’s unrequited passion for an actress and subsequent descent into madness'
posted by misteraitch at 3:41 AM on November 21, 2005

I'll second Notes from Underground and Crash (although, for Ballard, you might also want to check out The Atrocity Exhibition). And I'll add:

Samuel Beckett: Watt (the main character is aphasic, i.e., cannot speak or use language), Murphy, and How It Is.

Lautreamont: Maldoror (I'm not sure what his mental illness would be, exactly, but it is a classic 'disturbed' narrative).

If amnesia and other failures of extended consciousness count, then you have a lot more options - I'd recommend Edmund White's Forgetting Elena.
posted by josh at 4:43 AM on November 21, 2005

Not a novel, but Daniel Paul Schreber's Memoirs of My Nervous Illness fits the bill, I think.
posted by Prospero at 4:49 AM on November 21, 2005

not a novel either, but i really loved "Silent Snow, Secret Snow." It's by Conrad Aiken, not to be mistaken for the novel that I've never read (which according to amazon is by Adele Geras). This was given as an assignment to me in late middle school and it was one of the better critical thinking/literary theory moments from that school. It is never said directly that the kid is nuts/depressed. and the repetition of sibilant sounds is to tantalizing.
posted by bilabial at 5:49 AM on November 21, 2005

A short, and somewhat funny novel from Steve Martin, called The Pleasure of my Company: A Novel has as its main character a "savant whose closely proscribed world is bounded on every side by neuroses and obsessions" (from the amazon description). It is quite enjoyable and a quick read...
posted by Richat at 5:49 AM on November 21, 2005

posted by nebulawindphone at 5:55 AM on November 21, 2005

All these PKD references and no Confessions of a Crap Artist? The tendency to undermine the convenient insane-narrator explanation is less than in most of Dick's others.

Steven Millauser's Edwin Mullhouse : The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954 by Jeffrey Cartwright is only slightly outside of your requirements: a Boswell/Johnson sort of biography by a 11-year-old about his precocious, disturbed young friend, 10-y-o Edwin Mullhouse. Contains sections of Mullhouse's work, sort-of. Weird and brilliant.
posted by fidelity at 6:10 AM on November 21, 2005

Set This House In Order by Matt Ruff - the narrator is a character with multiple personality disorder. He and his personalities set out to help another character with MPD.
posted by matildaben at 6:22 AM on November 21, 2005

I wouldn't second Crash because although the narrator, James Ballard, is perhaps psychologically unusual he can't described as having a psychological disorder. Other characters in the book like Vaughn probably can but the narrator himself is more an observer.

I will take this opportunity to repeat the fact that one publisher responded to the manuscript: "This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do Not Publish."

Philip K Dick's later gnostic novels - as mentioned by loquacious - are very good examples of a mentally ill but self-aware narrator.
posted by ninebelow at 6:46 AM on November 21, 2005

Gene Wolfe's Latro in the Mist has a narrator who is suffering from almost total amnesia - the book is his attempt to remember what he's been doing and it definitely affects the way it is written as a novel - you have to reconstruct a lot of what he tells you.
posted by crocomancer at 6:47 AM on November 21, 2005

It's written in the second person, but certainly The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O'Connor is about a boy with a pretty severe case of psychosis.

Bogeywoman by Jamie Gordon is about a girl who is sent to a mental hospital. She may or may not be mentally ill. It's also a fabulous novel that everyone I've recommended it to has loved.
posted by OmieWise at 7:12 AM on November 21, 2005

Oh, sorry, Bogeywoman is narrated by said girl.
posted by OmieWise at 7:13 AM on November 21, 2005

This Side of Brightness, Colm McCann. Not narrators, but main characters: The Idiot, Dostoevksy. The Turn of the Screw, Henry James. Moby Dick. These may not be the kinds of mental disabilities you were after, though. I'd personally argue for Wuthering Heights, but that's probably not a generally accepted opinion.
posted by dilettante at 7:38 AM on November 21, 2005

Nobody Nowhere : The Extraordinary Autobiography of an Autistic by Donna Williams

Don't forget her followup, Somebody Somewhere, where she says some things she was afraid to admit the first time around.
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:43 AM on November 21, 2005

If amnesia counts, Roger Zelazny's Amber Chronicles starts with the narrator Corwin in this condition.

The romance writer Laura Kinsale favors protagonist with mental issues as well. A prime example would be "Flowers From the Storm", in which a duke/mathematician was sent to an insane asylum and fell in love with a Quaker there.
posted by of strange foe at 8:46 AM on November 21, 2005

I haven't read it in a while, but maybe Bringing Out the Dead by Joe Connelly.
posted by amro at 9:43 AM on November 21, 2005

A young adult book I just remembered from my childhood: I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, by Joanne Greenberg.
posted by dilettante at 9:44 AM on November 21, 2005

Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House.

Iain Banks's The Wasp Factory.

William Styron's Darkness Visible.

This thread keyed me into Skull Session, another mystery novel in which the narrator has Tourette's.

Jonathon Lethem edited The Vintage Anthology of Amnesia, which has a very complete and excellent bibliography at the end; many of the books are about disorders other than amnesia (John Franklin Bardin's, for instance). I'd take a look at it.
posted by painquale at 10:18 AM on November 21, 2005

Well, that's odd. It looks like my post got merged with someone else's. I didn't write "A young adult book I just remembered from my childhood" in the post above (It originally just said "Shirley Jackson's"), and I certainly didn't link to that book on Amazon. Weird.
posted by painquale at 10:20 AM on November 21, 2005

Oh yeah, totally We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson.
posted by OmieWise at 10:36 AM on November 21, 2005

Martin Amis's Other People: A Mystery Story -- written (apparently) from the perspective of someone with profound amnesia. This being Amis, though, there's way more going on than that...
posted by Sonny Jim at 2:23 PM on November 21, 2005

Saw this on BoingBoing recently:

In [PK] Dick's uncanny novels, the author demands of us that we decide for ourselves what's real and what isn't. 'Martian Time-Slip" (1964), for example, is partly told from the perspective of a 10-year-old schizophrenic colonist on Mars, where civilization is devolving into 'gubbish."
posted by obiwanwasabi at 3:28 PM on November 21, 2005

« Older Can we buy a new VW van in the US?   |   DDR-esque exercise alternatives? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.