Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
Nabokov’s most famous work is first and foremost a novel of obsession, of love-madness taken to the most devastating extreme. Humbert Humbert is afflicted by something even he can’t understand, a desperate, gleaming urge that makes him loathe himself as much as he loves his prey. It’s terrifying, when you think about it, but it makes for some damn beautiful prose.
Collected Fictions, Jorge Luis Borges
What better symbol of literary madness than the labyrinth? A puzzle of reality and unreality, a twisting maze from which you might never escape, a nonlinear exploration of time and space. But of course, Borges’ stories get even madder than that, bending the laws of reality in every direction. In the introduction to his first published book of fiction, Borges wrote, “It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books…” In this vast omnibus, you’ll get all that madness and more.
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
If you’re anything like me, you groaned when the most recent film version of Fitzgerald’s classic had Nick Carraway narrating the thing from a mental hospital. That’s not the point at all. But there is something of the madhouse in Gatsby’s mansion — the wild extravagance of the weekly parties, the outré obsessiveness of Gatsby’s mission, the fact that he’s a man who pretends he’s someone else so hard he becomes that person — almost.
Remainder, Tom McCarthy
In this strange and cerebral novel, an unnamed man receives an enormous settlement after being involved in an accident that “involved something falling from the sky.” But as he recovers, he is struck by a sense of inauthenticity. “Ever since learning to move again,” he says, “I’d felt that all my acts were duplicates, unnatural, acquired.” So, in order to achieve some sort of grasp on truth, he uses his new wealth to obsessively create re-enactments of scenes he either remembers or has imagined, from the utterly banal to the extreme, replaying them over and over again. It’s a kind of madness no one has ever seen before.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
“We’re all mad here,” says the Cheshire Cat to Alice. “I’m mad. You’re mad.” “How do you know I’m mad?” dear Alice wants to know. “You must be,” the cat tells her. “Or you wouldn’t have come here.” The famously hallucinatory book may be the maddest of the bunch, for characters and readers both.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson
Can we still call it madness when it’s fueled by “two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half-full of cocaine and a whole galaxy of multicolored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers…. A quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls”? When the prose is by Hunter S. Thompson, I’m going with yes.
Moby-Dick, Herman Melville
I’ve heard Captain Ahab parlor-diagnosed as a megalomaniac, which seems right, but it doesn’t even begin to contain the depth and breadth of his obsessive hunt for the white whale who consumes him. He’s the metaphorical obsessive who informs all obsessives.
The Shining, Stephen King
Is it cabin fever or is it ghostly possession? Either way, madness abounds at the Overlook Hotel.
The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka
Waking up a giant bug — we’ve all felt that. I kid; there’s no suggestion in Kafka’s most famous work that Gregor Samsa’s condition is in any way metaphorical, but it is pretty crazy. So is what happens to Samsa’s mind the longer he’s trapped in his new form — he becomes more and more bug-like as he lives as a bug, a descent into some kind of literary insanity indeed.
Atmospheric Disturbances, Rivka Galchen
In Galchen’s stunning first novel, a 51-year-old psychiatrist named Leo Liebenstein awakens to the realization that his wife is not his wife but an exact replica, an “impostress.” He then sets off on a quest to discover what, exactly, has happened, with Galchen asking questions about identity, subjectivity, and the nature of reality as he goes.
Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
Talk about mad love — here are two of the most furious lovers in all of literary history. Also, there are ghosts.
The Collector, John Fowles
Another rather terrifying story of obsession, in which a man becomes obsessed with a young art student, eventually kidnapping her and keeping her in his basement. Fowles brilliantly takes us first into the mind of madness, nearly convincing us that what he’s doing must be done, before we pull out to see his victim’s diary, and our sympathy begins to chill.
Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys
In this postcolonial prequel to Jane Eyre, Rhys lays bare the “madwoman in the attic,” a cultural archetype that, in some ways, haunts us to this day.
The Baron in the Trees, Italo Calvino
What’s madder: the young baron who decides to leave his family to spend the rest of his life without touching the ground (kind of to impress a girl), or a decision not to throw off the shackles he would otherwise sit around in for his entire life? It’s really up for debate, as Cosimo hops from branch to branch, having Peter Pan-like adventures and (sometimes) saving the day.
The Woman in the Dunes, Kobe Abe
This novel feels, in some ways, like a fit of madness — one you’ll be both relieved and slightly sorry to wake up from. In the story, a man wandering through the dunes winds up trapped in an enormous hole, where he and the woman who inhabits the thing are forced to shovel sand day in and day out, forever, to keep it all from collapsing in on them. There are some metaphorical leaps to be made, if you’d like to make them — otherwise, just revel in the Kafkaesque strangeness of it all (and be glad no sand is in sight).
Mao II, Don DeLillo
In this weird and wonderful book, which begins with a mass wedding for Moonies, DeLillo looks askance at the mob mentality, at the power of narrative for terrorists and nationalism, and the politics of power — with all their varying levels of rationality.
The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov
What else can you expect when the Devil comes to Moscow?
Endless Love, Scott Spencer
A novel that gets about as close to the experience of your first, teenage love as print on paper can possibly get (you know: fantasy, sex, obsession, arson). There’s nothing madder than that.
The Vanishers, Heidi Julavits
In this novel, which starts at a fancy grad school for psychics, people are actually trying to drive each other insane — legendary mentor vs. prize student in a kind of shadowy psychic warfare. A subversive and strange read, and a great one.
Hamlet, William Shakespeare
Nearly everyone in this play is somewhat mad, but Hamlet, of course, most of all (ghosts! revenge! soliloquies!) — though many papers have been written, and shall be written, about the veracity of his insanity “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t,” indeed. But alas, poor Ophelia.
Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes
Everyone’s favorite fellow living in his own fantasy world — that of chivalry and knights and honorable deeds. “Having thus lost his understanding, he unluckily stumbled upon the oddest fancy that ever entered into a madman’s brain; for now he thought it convenient and necessary, as well for the increase of his own honour, as the service of the public, to turn knight-errant.” Or is he the only sane person in the novel? The matter is up for debate.
Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett
As the saying goes, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. He’s not coming, you guys.
Lord of the Flies, William Golding
What else do you expect when you drop a load of children off on an island to fend for and organize themselves?
The Wave, Todd Strasser
Based on the real “Third Wave” teaching experiment that took place in a California high school, Strasser’s cult novel is both internally and externally an examination of what might compel someone to join a Nazi-esque group. There’s nothing crazier than herd mentality.
The Sea, The Sea, Iris Murdoch
In another novel of obsessive passion, famous actor Charles Arrowby moves to the seaside and catches a glimpse of his first love — whom he then proceeds to pursue to the point of sheer insanity. In the end, he admits, “How much, I see as I look back, I read into it all, reading my own dream text and not looking at the reality…” A madness we all know too well.
Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
The most famous mad scientist of all time.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum
Dorothy’s version of Wonderland is as mad as Alice’s, filled with winged monkeys, munchkins, winkies, talking lions, and people made of various unlikely materials. Wonder-ful indeed.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Robert Luis Stevenson
Another mad scientist, this one with the most fantastical split personality that’s ever been committed to paper.
The Island of Dr. Moreau, H.G. Wells
An island full of human-animal hybrids is crazy enough on its own, but the descent into confusion visited upon its accidental visitor is its own extra, hallucinatory sort of madness that makes this book settle over you like an ill-fitting pelt.
The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, Edgar Allan Poe
No one does the creeping horror of the fantastically paranoid like Poe.
The Secret History, Donna Tartt
The special madness of kids on college campuses is one thing (and is in evidence here, no doubt), but those same kids in murderous Bacchic frenzy is entirely another.
Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, Donald Antrim
In Antrim’s first novel, the citizens of a suburban town are fortifying their homes with spear-filled moats and hidden mines. The mayor fires missiles into the Botanical Garden, and later (in a disturbingly hilarious scene) finds himself publicly drawn in quartered. The Rotary club has become a place where one can not only channel but become one’s own power animal, be it Coelacanth or (less impressive) buffalo. Citizens stalk the underbrush. Bizarre, incredible, brilliant, and deeply, deeply insane.
The Fever, Megan Abbott
In Abbott’s novel, based on a true case study of teenagers losing control of their bodies (seizures, snarling) en masse, something is spreading through the population of adolescent girls in Dryden — something that makes them twitch, something tied up in their sexuality, something that may or may not be in their heads, or evidence of black magic. As if being a teenage girl weren’t already nearly too crazy to bear.
Rhinoceros, Eugéne Ionesco
When everyone in your town has turned into a rhinoceros except you, who, really, is the crazy one?
Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
Something in the jungle has driven Kurtz mad — greed, lust, power, imperialism, rich food, “wild and gorgeous” women — and a mad god is the worst kind of god.
House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski
A book that will, more than anything else, make you feel mad.
The Orange Eats Creeps, Grace Krilanovich
In this hallucinatory novel, we meet a group of tweaked-out homeless teenagers roaming the Pacific Northwest, who may or may not be actual vampires. The book begins thusly: “Dislodged from family and self-knowledge and knowledge of your origins you become free in the most sinister way. Some call it having a restless soul. That’s a phrase usually reserved for ghosts, which is pretty apt. I believe that my eyes filter out things that are true. For better or worse, for good or merciless. I can’t help but go through life with a selective view. My body does it without conscious thought or decision. It’s only a problem if you make it one.” Now there’s a description of literary madness if I’ve ever heard one.
Annihilation, Jeff VanderMeer
In this novel, the first in a trilogy, a group of female researchers explore the remote Area X and are, slowly but surely, driven to madness by what they find there — or what they don’t find there. Is it the air? Is it the depths? Is it the strange mold? A horror story and a science story at once, but even weirder.
Silence Once Begun, Jesse Ball
In this novel, a man loses a bet in a bar and signs a confession claiming responsibility for eight disappearances of elderly residents of a town called Narito — a crime to which he has no connection. He goes to jail, where he refuses to speak, either to absolve himself or explain or to cooperate in any way. Has he simply, as it seems, gone mad, or will his reasons become clear?
The Stranger, Albert Camus
Ah, Meursault, existential antihero, afflicted by what Camus called “the madness of sincerity” — the refusal to bend to society’s whims when they don’t align with one’s own feelings.
Solaris, Stanislaw Lem
The characters in Lem’s sci-fi classic are stationed on a planet with a sentient sea, which continually sends copies of their loved/dead ones to comfort/torment them. Such a situation, as you can imagine, leads to terrible, and sometimes beautiful, things.
In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, Matt Bell
This bizarre and beautiful novel imagines a troubled marriage as fever dream, the husband swallowing the fetus of his first failed child, which begins to speak to him, the wife singing her own version of the world into existence. Bell’s book, like the mind, is some kind of dark spell poised to take you over.
The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol, Nikolai Gogol
Ah, Gogol’s weirdos and all their bureaucratic-based insanity. The civil servant who goes mad for love. The nose who escapes and pretends to be a man (and gets a better job than the man whose face he abandoned). Overcoat-stealing ghosts. The list goes on.
Nadja, André Breton
Perhaps the most iconic surrealist romance, an account of a man’s obsession with a strange woman. The woman, he later discovers, is in fact mad — but it is André’s (for that is also the narrator’s name) madness, and surrealism, and surrealist madness, that’s most of interest here.
Hunger, Knut Hamsun
Hamsun’s unnamed protagonist is a man who has built his own psychological world in a way that can’t but destroy him, as he wanders around his city becoming hungrier and hungrier. Is he a genius or a madman? As ever, the literature is all in the blurred lines.
Animal Farm, George Orwell
All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others. Comic political satire that exposes the deep insanity (as Orwell saw it) of communism. Plus, you know, talking pigs.
Hôtel Splendid, Marie Redonnet
This strange, elusive little novel is the account of a woman who, with her sisters, owns an old hotel at the edge of a swamp. As the days go by, both the sisters and the building begin to dissolve, to decay, swallowed up by time and the swamp. And yet, our intrepid narrator carries on.
Notable American Women, Ben Marcus
Marcus’ first novel — narrated by Ben Marcus, with a blurb on the back from Ben Marcus’ father, which reads “How can one word from Ben Marcus’ rotten, filthy heart be trusted?” — unravels the world of a Silentist cult, to which Ben Marcus and his mother belong. The psychological effects of such a thing are, shall we say, troubling.
A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
Burgess’ hopped-up, ultraviolent teenagers, murdering in a near-future semi-dystopia, are exaggerations (one hopes) of a certain kind of teenage urge: destroy everything in path. There’s also, among other things, behavior modification and milk-plus, each with its own variety of madness.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson
Madness abounds in this novel — or at least a system of complex neuroses and fear that builds and builds until it shatters. Inside the castle, possible murderers and agoraphobics who protect their sovereignty with trinkets in talismans. Outside, the mass fear — pitchfork-level — and misunderstanding of the town. Enter, of course, a long-lost cousin, knocking on the door.