First-person narration is a tricky art. If a writer has the ability to transfer a character’s unfiltered thoughts to the page, how does he or she know when to shut the hell up? How many this-is-what-I-think-of-smoked salmon/winter mornings/Black Sabbath digressions flesh out the character or advance the plot? To paraphrase Henry James, is it enough to simply be interesting?
The number one rule is this: if you’re a great writer you can get away with anything. If you’re not a great writer, you’re probably a blogger.
Just kidding, everybody.
List after the jump.
10. Juan Garcia Madero – The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano
Madero is the character that inspired this list. The first part of The Savage Detectives is structured like Madero’s diary, which contains a lot of musings about poetry and sex and bohemian life in Mexico City. There are times when it degenerates into redundancy, and the voice isn’t mind-blowingly fresh, but I always find myself coming back for more. Roberto Bolano did something right; I just don’t know what it is.
9. Nick Carraway – The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Nick’s an outsider looking in at the foibles of the upper class, which he dutifully and eloquently records. I’m sure billions of pages of lit crit have been written about this, but he can be a maddeningly disconnected observer. When Tom Buchanan breaks his mistress’ nose, Nick doesn’t even raise a feeble hand in protest. Here’s a more satisfying rewrite of that moment:
Making a short deft movement Tom Buchanan broke her nose with his open hand. Without thinking, I dashed an empty whiskey bottle against the bookshelf and thrust the jagged remains into Tom’s face.
8. Hal Incandenza – Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Hal only narrates about fifteen pages of this massive novel, but they’re a unique and masterful fifteen pages. My favorite line, when he’s talking about his study habits:
I do things like get in a taxi and say, “The library, and step on it.”
7. Monsieur Meursault – The Stranger by Albert Camus
From the opening line – Mother died today – Meursault’s narration is creepy, deadpan, focused, and utterly oblivious to its own horrifying lack of warmth. The consistency of this voice is what makes The Stranger so perversely fun to read. Also the life lessons: if you’re going to go to the beach with friends, make sure no one brings a revolver. Especially if you’re never sure why you do anything, and don’t really care, anway.
6. Frank Bascombe – The Sportswriter by Richard Ford
Frank Bascombe is a decent fellow, content in his suburban New Jersey existence. He’s average as hell, and while this might inspire the existential willies in some, for Frank its just another one of life’s small pleasures. Making this guy’s narration compelling for almost 400 pages is a stunning trick – there’s no high-concept hook, not much in the way of high drama, and no twist ending – and one that I think fewer writers are attempting these days.
5. Fred Exley – A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley
The degree to which Exley the narrator and Exley the author diverge is debatable. They both like drinking and the New York Giants. They both hate the daily grind of gainful employment. They both want desperately to be a writer. Obviously, I can relate. And even if you’re the opposite kind of person (focused, employed, content, healthy) you’ll be in awe of Exley’s voice, which somehow manages to be both boozily digressive and penetratingly sober. It might bum you out, but there’s no denying its hard-won wisdom.
4. The Invisible Man – The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Try not to get chills when the unnamed narrator describes how his secret basement home is illuminated by exactly 1,369 lights. Imagine that many bare bulbs in one place, how blinding it would be. Now imagine those bulbs as the narrator, burning hot with frustration and rage against people whose lust for power tramples the humanity of the individual, and you’ve got an idea of the potency of the invisible man’s voice.
3. Henry Miller – Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
As with Fred Exley, it’s hard to know where Miller the writer ends and Miller the narrator begins. And once again, the mix of memoir and fiction makes for a truly visceral experience. Especially if you like reading about sex, whores and Paris. Hot! So hot that the book was the subject of a supreme court obscenity case. In the immortal words of Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Michael Musmanno, Tropic of Cancer is “not a book. It is a cesspool, an open sewer, a pit of putrefaction, a slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of human depravity.”
2. David Selig – Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg
In this sci-fi classic, David Selig uses his telepathic powers to ghost-write term papers for college students. That sounds like a waste of a superpower, but Selig’s voice really makes you understand and empathize with the big problems and small joys of telepathy. Also, he accidentally experiences his girlfriend’s nightmarish acid trip. Oops.
1. Alex – A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
The most original voice on the list, by far. Thanks to Stanley Kubrick’s film, a few words and phrases from Alex’s cockney-slavic slang – droogs, horrorshow, the old in-and-out – are immediately recognizable. But the book completely immerses you in Alex’s patterns of speech and behavior; a creepy and unforgettable experience.