Recently, watching the 2020 remake of “Rebecca” (a film not nearly as good as Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 original) on Netflix, I started musing on the idea of unreliable narrators. The young woman who narrates the story misunderstands everything about the world around her.
The idea of unreliable narrators wasn’t new even in 1938, when Daphne Du Maurier wrote the novel on which the films were based. Back in 1847, Emily Brontë introduced us to Nelly, the biased, gossipy and ultimately villainous servant girl, on whose story Mr. Lockwood depends for narrating “Wuthering Heights” .
Then there’s Holden Caulfield, scarred by personal trauma, who tells his story in “Catcher in the Rye” from a mental institution. Also “Lolita’s” lascivious Humbert Humbert, who sees the world through the lens of his obsession; and Alex, the alcoholic sociopath who narrates Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange.”
More recently, Gillian Flynn’s 2012 “Gone Girl,” with its shocking third-act twist, introduced many younger readers to the less than all-knowing narrator. Several years earlier, Zoë Heller published “What was She Thinking? (Notes on a Scandal),” one of my favorites of the genre.
Although they don’t conform exactly to the unreliable narrator trope, two recent books, Hernan Diaz’s “Trust” and “The President and the Frog” by Carolina De Robertis, play with the idea of telling the story in fresh, innovative ways.
“The President and the Frog,” published last year, is inspired by the life of Uruguay’s José Mujica, an anti-government revolutionary who spent more than a decade in solitary confinement. After his release he entered politics and served as Uruguay’s president from 2005 to 2010, winning worldwide affection for his progressive policies and simple lifestyle.
De Robertis’ unnamed protagonist, retired from the presidency, spends much of the novel describing his political, focusing on his time in prison. It’s here that De Robertis veers from traditional storytelling to introduce a frog, quite probably a hallucination, through whom the prisoner probes his inner core to regain his strength and his sanity.
This is the power of literary fiction: to use such an alien conceit to present the character of a flawed but honorable man. Only a master storyteller could pull this off, and De Robertis, whom the Bay Area is lucky to claim as a local writer, rises to the challenge.
This wasn’t the first novel by the Uruguayan American writer that I admire. Her “Cantoras,” also set in Uruguay, the story of a group of women who find refuge on an isolated island, is another gem.
In “Trust,” Diaz tells a story about money and power set in 1920s New York’s Aristocratic society. The first part of the story is presented as a novella, written by a long-forgotten author, detailing the rise of a legendary Wall Street tycoon whose hubris anticipates his downfall. This fiction within fiction would have been compelling enough to make a great book.
But then Diaz pulls a dazzling feat, giving us three new versions of the story, based on entirely different perspectives. This is the ultimate trickster novel, a daring pursuit that works brilliantly here, each version of the story causing us to rethink everything that came before. The poignancy of the short fourth section took my breath away.
Then there’s the title. As the novel revolves around money, largely the amassing of it, we can accept “trust” as dealing, at its most basic, as a financial arrangement. But there’s also the moral meaning of the word, the nature of reliability and truth. Which version of the story can we trust? Can we trust the author himself? Most complicated, where is truth to be found?
Nor is “Trust” a one-off for Diaz. His first novel, “In the Distance,” an unconventional Western that’s both thrilling and profound, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Both “The President and the Frog” and “Trust” bend and expand the nature of storytelling, going beyond convention to achieve a surprising depth and profundity. Each is a joy to read, and both remind me, despite the naysayers, that literary fiction is alive and thriving.