Fiction written as a monologue
December 5, 2018 3:54 PM   Subscribe

I’m interested in finding examples of fiction written as a monologue addressed to the reader, so that the reader feels like another, unnamed character.

I’m looking for stories that embrace the idea that someone is speaking - stories that use a particular voice, that don’t let the reader forget that they’re being addressed in a particular context and by a particular person, even if that person is carried away by their story and not allowing the reader / listener to get a word in edgeways.

I started wondering about this after reading “La Zarpa” [pdf, Spanish] by José Emilio Pacheco, in which a bitter old lady confesses to a priest (whose place the reader takes). The story reminded me of something, and after a while I realised that it was “Haircut” by Ring Lardner. There must be more stories like this!

Those two examples are both anecdotes being recounted to the reader, but I’d love to hear of other structures if the monologue device is used and the reader feels addressed within of the story’s own world.

To give examples of stories that I wouldn’t count: “Cathedral” [pdf] by Raymond Carver; or any of the stories of Poe, e.g. “The Cask of Amontillado”; or the “Best Beloved” reader in Kipling’s Just-So Stories. That’s because although the stories are technically addressed to the reader, the monologue device isn’t really foregrounded, and is swiftly discarded for regular first- or third-person narrative. “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” [pdf] by Ted Chiang would be sort of an intermediate case, because the narrator addresses the Caliph / reader a couple of times in the story.

Finally, all of the above authors are male, so I’d be particularly interested in suggestions for female authors. (Joyce Grenfell unfortunately doesn’t count!)
posted by chappell, ambrose to Writing & Language (25 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Would Margaret Atwood's 'Rape Fantasies' count? It reads as first person, but you become aware as the story goes on that it's actually a monologue.

Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist is structured as a monologue but doesn't really foreground the device, so I don't know if that's what you're looking for either.
posted by basalganglia at 4:03 PM on December 5, 2018

Incendiary by Chris Cleave is a bit like this as it's a book-length letter written to a terrorist.
posted by unearthed at 4:16 PM on December 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

The Loser by Thomas Bernhard. She-Devil in the Mirror by Horacio Castellenos Moya. Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas by Tom Robbins.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 4:16 PM on December 5, 2018

Dorothy Parker has a lot of short stories like this, but they are perhaps more like recorded speech than someone teling a story?
posted by runincircles at 4:16 PM on December 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

Camus' The Fall
Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler
posted by juv3nal at 4:20 PM on December 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

Moby Dick by Herman Melville also has elements of this. You'll find that many novelists writing in the 19th and 18th centuries felt their work had to be addressed to someone (through a conceit like a diary or confession), even if the work frequently veers into third person.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 4:20 PM on December 5, 2018

Memoirs of Hadrian takes the form of a letter written to Hadrian’s cousin, so the reader is a character in that sense, though a specific character. So I’m not sure if it’s what you want. It was first published in French in 1951. The author is Marguerite Yourcenar, so it’s written by a woman.
posted by FencingGal at 4:30 PM on December 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York by Gail Parent would fit. It's written as an extended suicide note, and it's much funnier than that sounds. It's kind of hard to find in print, but it's available online via the Internet Archive.
posted by SisterHavana at 4:36 PM on December 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

Does the addressed character specifically need to be unamed? Jemisin's Fifth Season books do this, though you eventually learn who is being addressed (and who's doing the addressing) -- I want to say Hundred Thousand Kingdoms does this as well but I can't recall for sure.
posted by curious nu at 5:01 PM on December 5, 2018

I don't know about the rest of the trilogy, but The Fifth Season uses the second-person not for address. The narrator is not speaking to the reader.
posted by praemunire at 5:08 PM on December 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

Notes from Underground, The Unnameable. In The Unnameable the speaker is not at all sure anyone is listening, but is concerned about this.
posted by ckridge at 6:05 PM on December 5, 2018

Agree with praemunire; there's a non-trivial distinction between second-person narrative (which I would also consider Calvino's story to fall under) and the situation described by the OP.

I think the best examples of this that I've read were The Reluctant Fundamentalist (as mentioned by basalganglia) and Stephen King's Dolores Claiborne.
posted by Paper rabies at 6:15 PM on December 5, 2018

A Thousand and One Nights is framed as a woman telling stories to a listening man, but I don't know if one can hear her voice through each story. I imagine I can, but I heard Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade as a boy, and now hear that voice beguiling and delighting in every story. I leave the matter to a more impartial reader to decide.
posted by ckridge at 6:16 PM on December 5, 2018

A bunch of Ring Lardner’s stories other than Haircut fit the bill. I can thing of two right off the top of my head: “Golden Honeymoon” and “Liberty Hall.”
posted by holborne at 6:28 PM on December 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

Maybe Damon Runyon?
posted by huimangm at 7:25 PM on December 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

Brandon Sanderson’s Alcatraz series does this. The first book is Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians. Sorry - the author is not female. Apparently, though, the final book in the series (due in the next year or so) will use the same narrative convention, just told by a different character (not Alcatraz) and that character is female.
posted by greermahoney at 7:41 PM on December 5, 2018

I'm not sure if this counts since the narrator isn't really a character, but Choose Your Own Adventure books are written in the second person and thus explicitly address the reader, throughout.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:00 PM on December 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

One of my favorite short stories in all the world is "Glory Goes and Gets Some" by Emily Carter. It's the title story of a collection, but I can only speak to the eponymous story (of which you can read a bit here) which is one long direct address in the glorious breathless voice of Glory. When it was published in the Best American Short Stories in 1998 it made me laugh so loud and hard that my roommate barged into my room thinking I was choking on something.
posted by minervous at 8:03 PM on December 5, 2018

The first two books of Jemisin's Inheritance trilogy do use this form, though it is not explicit at first.
posted by jb at 9:02 PM on December 5, 2018

My Last Duchess.
posted by clew at 1:01 AM on December 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsberg takes the form of a letter from the titular Mrs. Frankweiler. The letter is addressed to Mrs. Frankweiler's attorney Saxonberg, and I suppose it's possible for the reader to feel like a third party who is reading somebody else's mail -- but Frankweiler's voice is so vivid that I always feel like I am Saxonberg and she's talking directly to me.

Also, the book is really clever in the way it handles the problem of portraying scenes where the narrator isn't present -- it offers an entirely plausible reason for how Mrs. Frankweiler knows all this.
posted by yankeefog at 1:09 AM on December 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

Robert Graves' story The Shout has this kind of doubled, so I'm not quite sure if it fits your criterion. The person narrating tells a story in which he attends an event where somebody else tells him a story, and the somebody else is telling the story from yet somebody else's point of view. Within the story there's a weaving and crossing of these points of view, and the question of who is an unreliable narrator also hops between the narratives.

It's published as part of an anthology, The Shout and Other Stories, and as far as I recall a fair few of them are written in this kind of doubled narrator style, while some others have the single narrator thing going on. The Shout was written in the 20s.
posted by glasseyes at 4:18 AM on December 6, 2018

Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint is almost entirely a monologue spoken to Portnoy's psychoanalyst, who famously has only the last line of the book: "Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?" The Wikipedia page for the book has some quotes from Roth explaining why he used the structure.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 6:16 AM on December 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

It's been a while so I might be misguided, but I feel that Nabakov's Lolita is a good example
posted by Dmenet at 8:26 AM on December 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

Story of My Life by Jay McInerney would also fit.
posted by SisterHavana at 11:21 PM on December 6, 2018

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