Malicious protagonists

A nice pair of evasive narrator-villains: in Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead, Mrs. Duszejko, an old woman who lives in the forest and attributes a string of murders to vengeful animals, seeing them (retrospectively) in the stars. Philip Bowman in James Salter’s All That Is: we see through his eyes a lifetime of bad luck in love and money until in the end we see that we’ve been listening to a man who does not know himself, who can shock us but not himself. Salter’s slow reveal of all this is astonishingly well controlled. Duszejko is differnt – it turns out she’s just lying about events, and the interest in the book is more her perceptions of the people and place around her than either mystery or narrative performance.

Unreliable narrators are a dime a dozen, and my pairing these two in particular may just show that I don’t read enough. Or more to the point, didn’t pay much attention to fiction I read in my first fifty-odd years.

I’ll double down on this arbitrary match-making by claiming to see a family resemblance between Duszejko, Bowman, and such psychopaths as Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley, and Mary Katherine Blackwood in Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The latter cases are different in that, from early on, we know the characters for what they are; what they are, though, is so strange to us that an excellent story can be made from their continued ability to shock us by simply responding, in character, to new developments.

 

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