As I’ve oft repeated, it’s cold now, so perfect weather to sit your butt on a sofa and read books. However, not all books will do. I recently read a novel that almost drove me insane, and I liked that; realistic narratives can be expressively wonderful, but sometimes you need a tome rich with utter madness.
The novel I just completed reading is Nabokov’s Pale Fire, a mysterious, experimental, metafictional work delving into academic ego and neuroses. Seriously, it’s a doozy and a must read, especially if you enjoy not knowing what the hell is actually going on. The book follows Charles Kinbote, an academic and the editor of poet John Shade’s final work, a 999-line poem split into four cantos. The interplay between the themes in the poem and the narrative unraveling of Kinbote’s psyche as he interprets Shade’s poetics is an emblematic, literary thrill ride.
If Nabokov isn’t to your liking, though, there are many awesome novels for the seeker of pure madness and brain fizz. To start, you could try diving into Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. The plot of this book is not half as mad as the manner in which it’s laid out on the page. Johnny Truant, an unreliable narrator from the start, finds The Navidson Record, blind writer Zampano’s account of Will Navidson’s insane house (it has an organically changing secret dungeon or something). Truant, in interpreting the text, begins to go mad, and us right with him. Some pages are littered with upside down text, others have a single word. This is no book; it’s an experience to enjoy in a dark room with a single swaying light bulb.
On the lighter side of madness lies Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled. His narrative follows a famous pianist, Mr. Rider, over the course of a couple days before a gig in an unnamed, central European city. As soon as Rider arrives strange things begin to happen, and memories get all mixed up, leading to Rider being unable to trust his own perception. Experienced in more or less real time, it’s a soft, horrifying dream.
As well, there are many choices from the world of science fiction, most taking their inspiration from possibilities of drug-addled futures. If you haven’t been reading the novels I’ve already recommended in previous articles, go straight to the library and load up on Philip K. Dick. The strangest of his are The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Time Out Of Joint, A Scanner Darkly, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, UBIK, and Valis (among many others, because they’re all strange). Dick is one of few writers who had the raw talent of drawing the reader in and then suddenly changing the entirety of the story’s consciousness. It’s rad.
Two other titles you could try are The Futurological Congress and Solaris by Stanislaw Lem. Both novels deal in the terror of one’s own perception and the faults of said cognition. The first imagines a future in which a world state pumps hallucinogens into the environment, resulting in shocking, constant nightmares. And the second is a meditation on solitude and the mad visions one can have aboard a space station (orbiting a giant, liquid, brain planet). Each of the novels here, and above, offer a glimpse into the unreliability of one’s own mental processes and peel back the layers of sanity that mask the bleak but utterly thrilling sense of being unhinged from reality. Enjoy melting your minds, Internet friends!