Mess with my head!
June 24, 2010 6:03 AM   Subscribe

Books that mess with your head

I'm making a list of books to buy/read. I like books where the main character has no idea what he's dealing with / is being manipulated without realising it / where "nothing is as it seems". Books I have enjoyed that fit this criteria are
The Quincunx - Palisser
The Magus - Fowles
House of Leaves - Danielewski
The Last Sherlock Holmes Story - Dibdin
The Prestige - Priest
Foucault's Pendulum / The Name of the Rose - Eco
The Athenian Murders - Somoza (this one was such a mindf*ck I had issues sleeping afterward)

I'm aware of this question, but it's not quite what I want. I don't want to necessarily puzzle the story out myself. What I'm looking for is that sense of destabilisation.
posted by Ziggy500 to Writing & Language (73 answers total) 243 users marked this as a favorite
The Man Who Was Thursday, by G.K. Chesterton, is kind of a prototype of this kind of story.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:04 AM on June 24, 2010 [5 favorites]

Henry James's The Turn of the Screw
Sarah Waters's Fingersmith
John LeCarre's The Spy Who Came In From the Cold
posted by stuck on an island at 6:10 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Almost every single one of Paul Auster's books that I've read is like this.

I especially recommend New York Trilogy, Oracle Night, and Book of Illusions
posted by litnerd at 6:13 AM on June 24, 2010

"A Scanner Darkly" By Philip K. Dick
Also, "Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said"

There's always "Fight Club" by Chuck Palahniuk, but you likely know how it resolves at this point.

"Galatea 2.2" by Richard Powers is quite good, but the mindfuck in it is rather less pronounced. More of a series of minor delusions.
posted by 256 at 6:14 AM on June 24, 2010

Illuminatus! is basically Foucault's Pendulum as written by a couple of American Playboy editors instead of a European professor of semiotics. It's also awesome (and it came first, although Eco says he hadn't read it).

Gene Wolfe's The Fifth Head of Cerberus has a remarkable dreamlike quality which left me in a trance-like state for about a day after I finished it.

Nabokov's Pale Fire is another. Man, what a crazy book that is.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 6:14 AM on June 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

Hm, I'm not sure why I linked to Wikipedia instead of Amazon, since you should definitely not read plot summaries of any of these before you read the book. Just imagine they're Amazon links, okay?
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 6:15 AM on June 24, 2010

Philip K Dick's short stories have often left me with that "Wo..... WO...." feeling.

Try "We'll remember it for you wholesale" for a superb example :)
posted by greenish at 6:16 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro. Most of his books, actually.
posted by something something at 6:18 AM on June 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

Ooooh, Inverted World by Christopher Priest, the guy who wrote The Prestige.
posted by lpsguy at 6:19 AM on June 24, 2010

Response by poster: Wow, 8 answers in 10 minutes. You guys are amazing!

For anyone else who's interested in this kind of book, I forgot to add Amitav Ghosh's The Calcutta Chromosome to my list. It's pretty much the Bible of mindf*ckery so thought I'd just throw it in there.
posted by Ziggy500 at 6:20 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry.
posted by CheeseLouise at 6:21 AM on June 24, 2010

Gene Wolfe (again) The Book of the New Sun.
posted by crocomancer at 6:22 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Fingersmith, by Waters.
Bad Monkeys, by Matt Ruff.
We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver.
Black Cat by Martyn Bedford.
posted by 8dot3 at 6:23 AM on June 24, 2010

The Man Who Was Thursday is really a must read here.
posted by OmieWise at 6:23 AM on June 24, 2010

Thirding Philip K. Dick, especially VALIS.

Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49.

Seconding Pale Fire.
posted by equalpants at 6:28 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Another vote for The man Who Was Thursday. Also Till We Have Faces by CS Lewis.

Kafka may or may not be what you're looking for. A lot of Nabokov probably fits this criteria.
posted by resiny at 6:29 AM on June 24, 2010

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. hahahaha
posted by TWinbrook8 at 6:29 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. Oh man. I lost sleep. I am kind of a sissy, so maybe it doesn't count. Still.
posted by kuju at 6:29 AM on June 24, 2010

Blood Mask by Lauren Kelly (Joyce Carol Oates). Any book by Oates writing as Kelly or as Rosamund Smith.

Scott Turow,
posted by BibiRose at 6:35 AM on June 24, 2010


Scott Turow, Presumed Innocent. Don't read Innocent until you've read this one.

Patry Francis, The Liar's Diary..

Ken's Bruen's series starting with The Guards will mess with your head on an ongoing basis.

These are mostly mysteries or thrillers with some level of unreliability in the narration.
posted by BibiRose at 6:39 AM on June 24, 2010

In the Lake of the Woods, by Tim O'Brien. I wrote a review of it a few years back — it's here if you're interested in reading it.
posted by orange swan at 6:39 AM on June 24, 2010

Nthing the recommendations for Gene Wolfe (Peace is the most mindfucky in my opinion) and The Man Who Was Thursday, and adding City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanDerMeer.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 6:44 AM on June 24, 2010

I'd recommend Jonathan Carroll's books.

And much of J.G. Ballard's work ought to fit the bill too.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 6:49 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.
It's not really a thriller, but it does fit your criteria and is a really good read for uprooting your mindset on the world. Enjoy!
posted by neanderloid at 6:50 AM on June 24, 2010

Borges short stories?
posted by low affect at 6:53 AM on June 24, 2010 [5 favorites]

the Trial, by Franz Kafka.
posted by OrangeCat at 6:55 AM on June 24, 2010

Steve Erickson's books, including Arc D'X, Rubicon Beach, and The Sea Came In At Midnight.
posted by hermitosis at 6:57 AM on June 24, 2010

Maybe also the Wasp Factory by Iain Banks?
posted by Admiral Haddock at 6:57 AM on June 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

If on a winter's night a traveler, by Italo Calvino.
posted by likedoomsday at 7:07 AM on June 24, 2010 [4 favorites]

Dhalgren, sir. You are looking for Dhalgren.
posted by davidjmcgee at 7:08 AM on June 24, 2010 [6 favorites]

Uh, ma'am. Or sir. Sir or ma'am. Why not both?
posted by davidjmcgee at 7:08 AM on June 24, 2010

Walking On Glass and The Bridge by Banks are also pretty head fucky.
posted by ninebelow at 7:09 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

I demand that you read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. 'Sense of destabilization'? I got yer sense of destabilization RIGHT HERE!
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:12 AM on June 24, 2010 [7 favorites]

All of the books mentioned that I have read already are awesome, and now I want to read the rest.

Ziggy500, what is the "this question" in your original question supposed to link to? I have a feeling I want to read that thread too...
posted by dfan at 7:16 AM on June 24, 2010

I came in to recommend Dhalgren and any Murakami, not just Wind Up Bird Chronicle, but I was beaten to it. You might also like LeCarre.
posted by mygothlaundry at 7:17 AM on June 24, 2010

The Basic Eight, by Daniel Handler
posted by phoenixy at 7:19 AM on June 24, 2010

...y no se lo trago la tierra/ ...and the earth did not devour him by Tomas Rivera
posted by pickypicky at 7:21 AM on June 24, 2010

Response by poster: Oops! I fail at linking. Here you go, dfan.

You guys rule!

(And The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is AMAZING.)
posted by Ziggy500 at 7:29 AM on June 24, 2010

Check out Robert Irwin. In particular, I recommend The Arabian Nightmare, The Limits of Vision, Satan Wants Me and The Mysteries of Algiers.
posted by BigSky at 7:55 AM on June 24, 2010

You may have already read it, and it may be a cliche, but I was really, really impressed by The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. Note, though, that I was impressed by it when I was a teenager, but I still remember the book haunting me.
posted by natalinha at 7:56 AM on June 24, 2010

Oh hells yes Dhalgren
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 7:57 AM on June 24, 2010

Algis Budrys - Who?
Stanisalw Lem - Solaris
posted by Jakey at 8:02 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Falling Angel, by William Hjortsberg.
posted by hot soup girl at 8:09 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

I might suggest almost any Tim Powera novels as well. He writes a wonderfully well structured head fuck. He was also very close friends with PKD for what it's worth.
posted by Aversion Therapy at 8:09 AM on June 24, 2010

Came here to recommend Dhalgren and Murakami (Kafka on the Shore being my favorite). You might also enjoy Salvador Plascencia's "The People of Paper" or Palahniuk's Choke

But really, Dhalgren is where it's at. Read this book and you will not be disappointed.
posted by Palmcorder Yajna at 8:22 AM on June 24, 2010

The Troika by Stepan Chapman

Stations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick

And yes, definitely Dhalgren and all of the Gene Wolfe recommended so far: given that your orientation seems to be more towards literary fiction than F/SF, of the Wolfe, I would probably start with Peace.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 8:33 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Nthing any Tim Powers, but Declare really got me. Also, in a more subtle way, a lot of Neil Gaiman's work (but particularly Sandman and American Gods) mindfucks with me in a very particular and somewhat pleasant way-- his stories have so many mythological layers that you spend the next few days thinking the world probably really is like that, and that Gaiman is giving you a glimpse into the very tip of the mystery.

If you're looking for less creepy but more swashbuckling, Dorothy Dunnett's The Game of Kings (and all the subsequent Lymond books) are like doing mental gymnastics, particularly in the first one. You have absolutely no idea who the villain of the piece is, or the hero, and set within a plot that is truly epic in scope is quite a nice little mystery that will blow your mind at the end. It destabilized me but not in a creepy way-- it pushed me to be better, strive harder and accomplish more.
posted by WidgetAlley at 8:39 AM on June 24, 2010

Dashiell Hammett, esp. The Maltese Falcon.

Amnesia Moon is an extremely weird early SciFi novel from Jonathan Lethem that evokes Philip K. Dick cover to cover. I'm not sure any of the characters, let alone the reader and possibly the author as well, understand what's going on.

neanderloid: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. It's not really a thriller, but it does fit your criteria and is a really good read for uprooting your mindset on the world. Enjoy!

Yes, if you're 16.
posted by mkultra at 8:39 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Le Matou (usually in English as The Alley-Cat) by Yves Beauchemin.
posted by Marquis at 8:41 AM on June 24, 2010

The Ripley novels by Patricia Highsmith. They are, well, unsettling.
posted by Allee Katze at 8:45 AM on June 24, 2010

Oh, and if you're at all into comics, Grant Morrison is, IMO, the preeminent mindfucker in the biz. The Filth and The Invisibles both trade heavily on the "secret world behind" our own idea. The Filth is more compact (13 issues, 1 trade), while The Invisibles is much longer and sprawling. His Earth 2 is a fun take on superheroes, where the Justice League (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, et al) find a universe where they're the bad guys running the world and Lex Luthor is the lone remaining hero.
posted by mkultra at 8:51 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you can handle the explicit violence and sex, then I'd recommend Glamorama by Bret Easton Ellis.
posted by ejazen at 9:02 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm so glad that 8dot3 mentioned We Need to Talk About Kevin. Amazing book.

You might already know what happens in Fight Club but it's actually a very good read. Most of Palahniuk's books are mindfucks. I really liked Diary.
posted by radioamy at 9:26 AM on June 24, 2010

Time's Arrow, by Martin Amis. Even though you the reader and the main character know what's going on to some extent - even if you've read a summary of the book and there are no surprises as to the direction things are going - it's still a profoundly disorienting experience to read the book.
posted by sigmagalator at 9:35 AM on June 24, 2010

I know someone else recommended Pynchons Crying of Lot 49 but I would also recommend his opus, Gravity's Rainbow.
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 10:00 AM on June 24, 2010

The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall
posted by juv3nal at 10:02 AM on June 24, 2010

I've just finished Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen, which matches this pretty well.
posted by Bleusman at 10:15 AM on June 24, 2010

It's a short story, but without any doubt All You Zombies is the greatest literary mindfuck of all time.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:16 AM on June 24, 2010

The Zero Game, by Brad Meltzer.

Actually, most of his books would fit.
posted by SisterHavana at 10:34 AM on June 24, 2010

I'd like to put in another (very emphatic) vote for The Unconsoled. His Never Let Me Go is also good for this.
posted by grapesaresour at 10:52 AM on June 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Dice Man
posted by nitsuj at 11:00 AM on June 24, 2010

Nearly anything by Philip K. Dick, the ones mentioned above are good, also some of his older works including

Eye In The Sky
The Penultimate Truth (a personal favorite of mine)
Dr. Bloodmoney

Also, Anathem by Neil Stephenson

While not exactly in the "everything you know is wrong" vein, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller is similar in spirit.
posted by lordrunningclam at 11:45 AM on June 24, 2010

Rant, by Chuck Palahniuk. Or anything by him. Wow.
posted by Area Control at 12:15 PM on June 24, 2010

The Shadow Over Innsmouth by H.P. Lovecraft.
The Mysterious Stranger by Mark Twain

Nthing Kafka, Murakami, Ballard, PKDick.
posted by benzenedream at 4:08 PM on June 24, 2010

Seconding Glamorama. Eminently destabilizing.
posted by Paragon at 12:21 AM on June 25, 2010

Response by poster: !! What an amazing response. Thank you everyone. I'm not marking best answers, as every answer has been a best answer.
posted by Ziggy500 at 2:27 AM on June 25, 2010

Aw can we have a couple more? The Manuscript Found at Saragossa, Jan Potocki and Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne.
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 4:08 AM on June 25, 2010

Neuromancer by William Gibson is a prime example of the main character being manipulated without really knowing what's going on. In terms of your tag, mindfuck, it could not be more spot on.
posted by mcstayinskool at 9:19 AM on June 25, 2010

Beyond Lies the Wub
posted by wittgenstein at 9:35 AM on June 25, 2010

Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card, does this in a limited sense. Sophie's World, by Jostein Gaarder, too.

You could re-ask this question about TV shows too -- many scifi/horror shows like The Prisoner and Dollhouse (particularly the second season) fulfill your requirements nicely.
posted by Asparagirl at 4:11 PM on June 25, 2010

The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold was a nice mindbender for me.
posted by Redhush at 10:42 PM on June 26, 2010

The Third Policeman
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
posted by xammerboy at 10:01 PM on June 27, 2010

Seconding Iain (M.) Banks' The Wasp Factory, and adding Use of Weapons as another of his books that looped my head not once, but twice.
posted by HFSH at 3:33 AM on June 29, 2010

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