It’s all well and good for an author to write a book with a likeable narrator. Kind, empathic, brave, warm, honest, well-meaning, and funny narrators jump off the page. They’re the type of people we aspire to be, or at least befriend. On the other hand, it takes a special set of skills to write a book from the point of view of a truly despicable person. Unlikeable narrators do things that we readers would never dream of doing, admit to things that make our skin crawl, and (in the case of narrators that are both unlikeable and unreliable) make us question whether we should even believe the story they’re telling us. And yet, we don’t throw the book across the room. Sometimes, we even enjoy them.
I thought about that a lot as I read A Clockwork Orange for this week’s review. I like to think I’m generally a pretty forgiving reader, but there are least a few narrators that have really horrified, disgusted and angered me. So I’ve put together a Keeping Up With The Penguins list of the most unlikeable narrators in literature.
Alex (A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess)
If you’ve seen the film adaptation, you may think you’re familiar enough with the misdeeds of Alex in A Clockwork Orange. Let me tell you’re now: you’re in no way prepared for reading chapter after chapter of extreme graphic violence from Alex’s own perspective. Alex is the instigator of vicious assaults, violent rapes, and all manner of hideously anti-social behaviour. What makes it worse is that he knows all the while that what he’s doing is wrong (“you can’t have a society with everybody behaving in my manner of the night”), and yet he’s simultaneously full of self-pity and wide-eyed confusion as to why anyone would want to “cure” him. It all makes for an extremely confronting read, even for fans of unlikeable narrators. Read my full review of A Clockwork Orange here.
Humbert Humbert (Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov)
As one of the most iconic unlikeable narrators in literature, Humbert Humbert was the first narrator who made me feel truly disgusted, as far as I can recall. He is a sexual predator who fetishises the twelve-year-old Lolita, trying desperately to convince the reader that it was in fact she who seduced him (ick) and that his love for her is simply mischaracterised as perverse (double ick). It is a true credit to Nabokov that Lolita remains a fascinating, beautiful read – albeit one narrated by a truly abhorrent man. (Humbert Humbert got what was coming to him in the end, though, and that always feels good.)
John Self (Money: A Suicide Note by Martin Amis)
John Self is perhaps one of the lesser-known unlikeable narrators, but he is well deserving of his place on the list nonetheless. Amis had his work cut out for him in Money: A Suicide Note, crafting a protagonist that captured all of the hedonism and excess of the late 20th century. John Self eats, smokes, drinks, and fucks himself into oblivion for the entire duration of the novel. His hubris is (of course) his downfall; his business associate swindles him, and his entire orgy of consumption collapses around his ears in the end. John Self is not the kind of man you would want to invite to dinner, but Money: A Suicide Note is artfully written. Read my full review of Money: A Suicide Note here.
Alexander Portnoy (Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth)
Alexander Portnoy is often lumped into the same category as John Self, but really he’s more of a “love him or hate him” kind of unlikeable narrator. Portnoy’s Complaint reads as a monologue of Alexander’s frustrations as described to his psychoanalyst. He describes his life as being akin to living “in the middle of a Jewish joke”, complete with a domineering mother, an urgent sex drive, and a heaping serve of guilt. It’s hard to look away, the obscenity certainly draws your eye, but it’s equally tough to shake the nagging repulsion one feels for Alexander. Still, I laughed out loud more times than I could count. Read my full review of Portnoy’s Complaint here.
Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger)
Personally, I kind of liked Holden Caulfield, but that was mostly due to the nostalgic kick I got out of his character being so similar to the angry teenage boys I knew growing up. Holden is miserable, self-pitying, angry, vague, prone to flights of fancy, and – most of all – he shits on everything. In The Catcher in the Rye, he represents everything that everyone dislikes about self-centered teenagers, and his unrelenting whinge-fest can certainly grate on the nerves. He lacks the true darkness of other, more mature unlikeable narrators on this list, but he is certainly unlikeable in his own youthful way. Read my full review of The Catcher In The Rye here.
Patrick Bateman (American Psycho – Bret Easton Ellis)
I would be remiss if I didn’t include Patrick Bateman on this list of unlikeable narrators, he’s basically the poster-child for them: detail-oriented, stylish, aloof, and filled to the brim with murderous rage. He has a real penchant for torture, dreams up particularly gruesome methods to kill, and to top it all off he targets the most vulnerable women he can find… or does he? We never quite get to the bottom of Bateman’s psychopathology, and the reader’s frustration at the end of the novel is probably enough on its own to make him deeply unlikeable (you know, in the event that you can get past the whole chainsaw-a-sex-worker-to-death thing). Read my full review of American Psycho here.
So, why do we even read books with unlikeable narrators? These are no-good, very-bad people, after all. I think, in large part, it’s because we find them interesting. They’re so far removed from what we experience every day, the types of people we know and love, and that makes them fascinating.
What do you think? Do you have a “favourite” unlikeable narrator? Let me know in the comments below (or share with us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).