This week sees the release of Max Barry’s latest novel Lexicon , an inventive, cerebral, and majorly twisty thriller. To celebrate, Flavorwire asked Barry to share some of his favorite novels — or more particularly, his favorite novels that can seriously screw with your head. But after all, as the author tells us: “All novels mess with your mind, of course. They feed you a string of letters and punctuation, and in your mind those somehow transform into people and plots, love and death. There is magic going on there. But some novels go beyond that, delicately toying with the way your brain makes assumptions, or interprets particular events, in order to create an emotional impact that isn’t otherwise possible.
“These five aren’t trick novels. They don’t pull the rug from under you (mostly); they won’t remind you that you’re reading a book, or break the essential deal that every reader makes with an author: If you pretend this is true, I’ll try to believe you. What they do is what all novels do, only elevated to a higher level: They make you feel things that are impossible.” Steel that mind of yours and check them out below.
The Lovely Bones , Alice Sebold
A 14-year old girl is horribly murdered in a small rural town in 1973. The aftermath — the police investigation, the emotional disintegration of her family, the paranoia, fear, and grief of the town — may be familiar; we’ve encountered those stories before. But The Lovely Bones is narrated by the victim, whose soul watches from heaven, or someplace like it. Since we’re able to see that the victim is, essentially, safe, the tone of the story is fundamentally changed; we can process the dark subject matter against a backdrop of warmth and tenderness, while still feeling the full emotional toll on the girl’s family and community. She is simultaneously lost and saved.
Cloud Atlas , David Mitchell
Cloud Atlas comprises six stories that sit within each other, like Russian dolls, but are mostly independent, in terms of story, setting, style — and pretty much everything else. If you want, you can enjoy each as a completely separate tale. But they are connected, and it’s these common strands that provide enormous depth and richness to the overall book. A novel’s words only describe so much; the rest — the detail, the implications, the ambiguities — are provided by us, our imagination filling the gaps. The gaps in Cloud Atlas span centuries and continents; the result is a world that feels completely intimate, as if we know every part of it.
The Shining Girls , Lauren Beukes
A time-traveling serial killer chooses victims when they’re young girls and returns for them when they’re grown women. Stories of time travel can be dizzyingly complex, but The Shining Girls picks a single timeline and sticks to it: There are no paradoxes or sliding doors here. As a reader, you understand the rules from the beginning, and they’re never violated. But still, there are jaw-dropping moments when you realize how the pieces fit together — how a single, apparently inconsequential moment in time can affect the future. It means we see the book’s setting and characters not in isolated moments or backdrops but rather as living, evolving organisms.
Gone Girl , Gillian Flynn
A New York couple move to rural Missouri. They have both lost their jobs; their marriage is strained. And then she disappears. The story is told from alternating points of view, the husband and the wife, and both are compelling even when they offer differing opinions about what, exactly, happened. Gone Girl uses the particular magic of the first-person point of view: When we’re inside a character’s head, privy to their intimate thoughts, it’s almost impossible not to believe them — even when we know we shouldn’t. There’s more to this book, too, in how it creates expectations and violates them.
Fight Club , Chuck Palahniuk
So this one comes closest to an outright trick. But it’s a good trick, a trick with a long and distinguished history, and it’s not played on the reader so much as on the protagonist. And in Fight Club, it fits completely with the story being told, of a man growing tired of his safe, blunted existence, who seeks to reconnect with something primal and reclaim his masculinity. I won’t, of course, describe this in any more detail, because if you haven’t read the book, it’s well worth your time. As is the film, which is an extremely good adaptation.