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!).
May 25, 2018 at 8:02 PM
This is a great post. It is a very neat idea. I tend to like unlikable characters in a book.
Of the books that I have read Alex is a pretty bad guy, though I have not read American Psycho. I must admit to liking Alexander Portnoy, and just like an unlikeable character.
May 25, 2018 at 8:23 PM
The more I read and the more I think about it, the more I like traditionally-unlikeable characters! The “good” ones, who never say anything nasty or do anything interesting, bore me to tears! The unlikeable ones are definitely more fun to read about… 😉
May 26, 2018 at 2:08 AM
As I told you in a different arena, I don’t remember having ever worried much about the moral compass of a character, main or otherwise, 1st person or 3rd person narration.
Yet, I remember having conceived an intense dislike for an author. (And one who knew how to write!!)
Ever happened to you that you like the work of a certain artist and then you hear or read a declaration, an interview or the such and find out that you don’t like his opinions or expressions? It’s such a disappointment!
(I used “his” because it happend to me a couple of times and always with men expressing an appaling view on women; just because some philosopher – who had a pathetic personal life – used the expression “recreation of the warrior”, it’s not a reason to feel justified to such bullshit).
But with Milan Kundera was dislike at first sight, right through his books. A contemporary, forchrissake, and that’s what you can do with female characters? And he is so much “I-now-stand-up-on-this-stool-and-tell-you-things-are”.
Whatever. Think about it. How can you dislike a person on the basis of two of his books? Borrowing from your tweet, What does that say about me?
May 27, 2018 at 8:40 AM
Oh, all the time, Marina! All the time! I do find it really difficult to separate the artist from the art, too – the shine always comes off the apple of books I once loved when I find something to intensely dislike in the author 🙁 I do think about the moral compass of the protagonists, though, especially when it’s a first-person narrator, and I’m finding more and more that I like the “unlikeable” ones so much more. I just find them more relateable than perfect/martyr characters, you know? We’re all flawed. Thank you, as always, for your brilliant insights! 😉 <3
May 26, 2018 at 2:11 AM
I agree with Brian.
I seem to remember that I thought Portnoy kind of endearing.
May 30, 2018 at 6:12 PM
mine was Jack Kerouac’s On the Road: it came with lots of recommendations, the intro was like fan devotion. I read it and found him the most self-indulgent irresponsible in fact despisable person I could imagine. More unforgivably he trashes cars and likes doing it.
June 1, 2018 at 1:42 PM
Oh yes, as soon as you said On The Road, I thought “gee, Phil would have had a conniption over the way they thrashed the cars!” haha 😉 Sal is certainly a selfish, self-indulgent boy, probably not someone I’d want to be friends with (or trust with my wallet). As best I could tell, the only redeeming quality he had was that he wasn’t too proud – he had no problems asking for money or help from friends and family, there was no martyrdom/machismo bullshit (that’s a personal pet peeve of mine, so I’m kind of on high alert for it in every 20-something male character).