My newest column at the Los Angeles Times muses on unreliable narrators - a device I love, but not everyone does - and specifically, those employed in new novels by relative newcomers Jesse Kellerman and Angela S. Choi, both of whom I firmly believe will be writing exceptional works for the foreseeable future. Here's how the piece opens:
I should admit up front that my favorite narrators tend to be unreliable. While other readers seek comfort or order, a breather from life's everyday chaos and bad news, I like having my consciousness pricked by protagonists who don't understand their motivations and actions as we do, who behave in ways that seem perfectly logical to them but utterly horrifying to others and who operate in a space of perpetual truthiness. Joan Schenkar's recent biography of one of the most gifted equilibrium-shifters, Patricia Highsmith, was so brilliant in revealing, with skin-ripping clarity, the deep, throbbing neuroses of a person capable of creating such a creature as Tom Ripley.
Crime fiction's wide terrain makes plenty of room for such untrustworthy sorts. Read Ira Levin's 1952 debut, "A Kiss Before Dying," and stand in awe that such a young man (22 when he wrote the book) could burrow deep into the mind of an out-and-out sociopath. Or take one of my all-time-favorite works of mystery fiction, "In a Lonely Place" (1947), Dorothy B. Hughes' masterful exploration of a serial murderer so believable in his self-deception that he is utterly baffled by the thought that the type of women he gravitates to for killing might be the same ones who defeat him. More recently, Jason Starr has staked this same territory to prove a larger point about the never-ending anxiety of living in concentrated urban spaces like New York City. When you're constantly in transit, on the move or hustling, who has time for petty things like empathy?
But unreliable shouldn't automatically translate into unlikable. Sometimes that's the case, but the writer who genuinely pulls such narrators off understand there is a whisper-thin line between a charmer and an evildoer, and that charisma can't overcompensate for darker impulses...
Read on for the rest.