The Most Cryptic Titles in Literature (And What They Mean)


This week, Laurent Binet’s HHhH , which we can safely say is blessed with one of the strangest titles we’ve ever encountered, hit shelves. Inspired by the sheer weirdness of the title (we’ll explain what it means later), we’ve compiled a list of some of the most cryptic book titles in literature, from the confusingly short to the numerically based to the grammatically incomprehensible. We’ve left out children’s books, of course — as we’re sure you’re aware, the nonsense words and silly symbols gracing their covers just are too many to count. Click through to check out our list, and if we’ve missed your own favorite cryptic title, let us know in the comments.

HHhH , Laurent Binet

In Binet’s tour de force, “HHhH” stands for “Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich,” the German for “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.” That may be only slightly less cryptic, so here’s a little more: the novel revolves around a plot to kill Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi Protector of Bohemia and Moravia known as “The Butcher” — but it’s also a super-meta saga of Binet’s writing process. Perhaps that’s the reason for all the abbreviation.

C , Tom McCarthy

When you begin McCarthy’s most recent novel, you immediately stop on every word beginning with “c,” wondering if this could be what he means, if this here is the word so important it can only be coyly alluded to on the cover. C stands for “carbon,” for “chemistry,” for “Carrefax” — but it never materializes as a single signified word, or if it is, we’re never told. P.S.: you may consider this book as representing the entire field of books with single-letter titles: Pynchon’s V., Berger’s G, or (nearly) Gaddis’s J R.

Eeee Eee Eeee , Tao Lin

Oh, Tao Lin. His debut novel, ostensibly about a guy named Andrew working at Domino’s and over-analyzing his life, is also filled with seemingly random, disjointed surreal happenings: bears, Salman Rushdie, and dolphins, who say “Eeeee eee eeee” to express emotion, even though they can speak English.

1Q84 , Haruki Murakami

The strange title of Murakami’s latest is a joke — a reference to George Orwell’s 1984 and a bilingual linguistic joke: in Japanese, “Q” is pronounced exactly the same as the number 9. In the novel, a young woman named Aomame steps out of 1984 Tokyo and into a parallel universe, which she calles 1Q84 — “Q is for ‘question mark.’ A world that bears a question.” Whether we’re all really supposed to pronounce the title as “Q-teen Eighty Four,” we couldn’t say.

2666 , Roberto Bolaño

The mysterious title of Bolaño’s last novel has never been cracked — and perhaps it never will be, though clues abound. As critic Henry Hitchings wrote, “The novel’s cryptic title is one of its many grim jokes; there is no reference to this figure in its 900 pages. However, in another of his novels, Amulet, a road in Mexico City is identified as looking like ‘a cemetery in the year 2666’. Furthermore, in the novel, The Savage Detectives, there exists the line: ‘And Cesárea said something about days to come… and the teacher, to change the subject, asked her what times she meant and when they would be. And Cesárea named a date, sometime around the year 2600. Two thousand six hundred and something.’ Why this particular date? Perhaps it’s because the biblical exodus from Egypt, a vital moment of spiritual redemption, was supposed to have taken place 2,666 years after the Creation.”

The Orange Eats Creeps , Grace Krilanovich

Krilanovich’s feverish novel about “Slutty Teenage Hobo Vampire Junkies” stumbling through the Pacific Northwest has one of the most confusing titles we’ve ever encountered — no matter which way we play it, we can’t figure it out, and the novel doesn’t shed any light on the subject either. It made us feel better when we read this missive from Krilanovich in which she explains that she basically just bastardized a song title by a band called Unicornface in an attempt to pick a title that was “vague and all-encompassing.” You got your wish, lady.

Catch-22 , Joseph Heller

Sure, we all know what it means now (cheat sheet: a paradoxical situation in which the rules don’t allow you to avoid a problem), but when Heller’s famous novel was published, it basically looked like some hyphenated nonsense. All is soon cleared up, however, as soon as you delve into the novel: “There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he were sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.”

FOOP!, Chris Genoa

Genoa’s debut novel is a science fiction comedy in the Bizarro literary tradition, which makes FOOP! a perfectly reasonable thing to call it. Unsurprisingly, “foop” is a word Genoa made up himself, and he describes the book’s titling process thusly: “Originally the book was called Poof!, which is a horrible title. It makes me nauseous just thinking about it. Poof! sounds like a book on magic written by disco hippie magician Doug Henning. If I close my eyes I can even see Doug on the cover of Poof!, sitting cross-legged on a rainbow and pulling a rabbit out of a pink top hat. A couple weeks before the book went to print my Uncle Bob posted a comment on my blog that jokingly said he was working on a book called Foop! (which obviously is just Poof backwards). One thing led to another and I decided to change the title. As for Foop’s meaning in the book: it’s the sound people hear when they walk through a wormhole. But if you look it up on the Urban Dictionary you’ll find three VERY different definitions which I didn’t know about until recently: (1) it’s Barbadian for “have sex,” (2) it’s a mix between farting and pooping, and (3) it’s the act of sticking two fingers into your anus.” Yikes.