10 Phenomenally Tricky Books Everyone Should Read


This morning, we read Laura Miller’s piece on “sneaky author tricks” over at Salon, in which she muses on the dangers of metafictional, tricks-y writing — one of her points being that if an author’s going to do it, he’d better do it well. Like Miller, we are rather fond of authorial tricks, and considering that today is April Fools’ day, we thought we’d collect a few of the best here. Click through to see a few of our favorite tricky books.

If on a winter’s night a traveller , Italo Calvino

Oh yes. We’re willing to call this one the best metafictional novels we’ve ever read — an endless procession of first chapters to increasingly wonderful novels, buoyed by a frame narrative of reading, romance, and adventure. Even the table of contents is a poem. Seriously, buy this book. You’ll be getting way more than you paid for.

Pale Fire , Vladimir Nabokov

If you’re even a casual visitor to this space, you probably know that we, uh, like Nabokov. A lot. This is one of his masterpieces, second in our esteem only to Lolita, and much trickier. After all, the novel consists of a poem and then commentary on that poem — commentary that leads you down a ludicrous rabbit hole of authorial intention and madness. As for the recent publication of the poem as a standalone volume? Pish posh, we say. That poem was meant to be mediocre. That’s far from the only opinion, but we’re purists, and we’re sticking to it.

Sixty Stories , Donald Barthelme

As Anatole Broyard wrote in The New York Times, “Donald Barthelme may have influenced the short story in his time as much as Hemingway or O’Hara did in theirs. They loosened the story’s grip on the security of plot, but he broke it altogether and forced the form to live dangerously. O’Hara played with the brand names of our things, and Donald Barthelme plays with the brand names of our ideas. While Hemingway and O’Hara worked with specific feelings, he works with the structure of our emotional makeup.” Indeed, Barthelme’s work is rife with allusions, intertextuality, and a supreme disregard for the traditional form of the short story — stories may be just a few words, or several pages without a punctuation mark, or an accumulation of details that make the reader search for the plot themselves. They may be numbered lists, they may be shifty tricks. They are all totally amazing.

Albert Angelo , B. S. Johnson

There are holes in the pages of Albert Angelo. No, literally — there’s also columned text, split between dialogue and the internal thoughts of the protagonist. Parts read like a play. There are ads. There are multiple narrative viewpoints. Tricks may abound, but good luck following the rabbit through the top hat’s false bottom.

House of Leaves , Mark Z. Danielewski

Well, this one’s all but obligatory on a list like this. After all, Danielewski’s intensely claustrophobic novel uses almost every trick in the book: multiple narrators, text in unusual places, insane typography, and copious footnotes. A labyrinth both in form and story, deciphering the novel is a demanding job. But at least you know what you’re getting into.

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell

David Mitchell’s masterpiece is frequently described as a literary version of Russian nesting dolls, and in a way it is — one part of the novel exists as a manuscript in another, and the same lilting refrain, the eponymous sextet, drifts throughout. But more aptly, these are interlocked novellas, each one feeding off the others, building towards an examination of the world as we know it.

The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood

Is it a trick if the author tells you what she’s doing up front? After all, Atwood’s novel within a novel announces itself with a title and publisher and publication date, and then goes on to tell us secrets we might not otherwise have known. Sure, it’s a trick — but a masterful one.

Hopscotch, Julio Cortázar

Look, any time an author feels that he has to include a “Table of Instructions” with his novel, you know it’s going to be pretty tricks-y. In this one, you also get multiple endings, sections from other novels of questionable veracity, and at least 99 “expendable” chapters. Get jumping.

The Tragedy of Arthur, Arthur Phillips

In true Pale Fire form, this book is a play, with commentary on the play. And not just any play — we’re talking a previously undiscovered work by Shakespeare, which Arthur inherits from his con artist father. Is it real? Is it a work of genius? Does it matter? You’ll have more fun than the novel’s protagonist parsing it all out, that’s for sure.

Lanark, Alasdair Gray

Gray’s modern interpretation of hell is organized into four books, which are arranged in the following order: Three, One, Two, Four. There’s also an epilogue about four chapters shy of the end of the book, in which the author explains, “I want Lanark to be read in one order but eventually thought of in another.” Part realist, part fantasist, all genius, we highly recommend you read this book.