Break my little brain with BOOKS!
September 5, 2023 11:30 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for books that made you gasp, that made you realize what was possible with literature. Books that have crawled inside your skin and made the world look different. Books that made you say "I didn't know you could do that!"

Some that come to mind are: Helen Oyeyemi "Mr. Fox", anything by Akwaeke Emezi, Jorge Luis Borges "Labyrinths". Not interested in David Foster Wallace / House of Leaves bravado or writers that write just to show off.

Also open to short stories!
posted by allymusiqua to Media & Arts (52 answers total) 121 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I’m obsessed with Invisible Cities, which is a series of lyrical descriptions of fantastical fictional cities (which are all sort of metaphorical descriptions of all cities), framed by a conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan.
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:36 AM on September 5 [13 favorites]

Best answer: Story of Your Life, by Ted Chiang, may very well change the way you think about writing forever.
posted by The Bellman at 11:48 AM on September 5 [23 favorites]

The book "This Is How You Lose the Time War" (by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone) is the most recent thing to did this for me, as a guy who loves 18th-century British novels.

(So I am also kind of obligated to mention "Tristram Shandy" by Sterne here, buuuuuuuut it's pretty rough sledding by contemporary standards.)
posted by wenestvedt at 11:49 AM on September 5 [9 favorites]

Have you read through the recommendations in this recent thread?
posted by knile at 11:49 AM on September 5 [1 favorite]

The novel "Dogs of War" by Adrian Tchaikovsky also was pretty wild, getting inside the heads of humans, bio-engineered animals, and swarm consciousness all in the same book.

I just read the sequel, "Bear Head," and it reminded me of how many levels "Dogs of War" works on: politics, science, consciousness, loyalty, animals, revolution, South America, gender....a heck of a story there.
posted by wenestvedt at 11:51 AM on September 5 [1 favorite]

One of my favorites that many haven’t heard of is The Measurements of Decay. If you’re into philosophical SF, this will blow your mind!
posted by Fiorentina97 at 11:53 AM on September 5

The Rings of Saturn, by W.G. Sebald
posted by niicholas at 11:57 AM on September 5 [4 favorites]

Watership Down is about rabbits on a surface level...but after 50 or so pages you forget all about that and you can focus on the allegories.
posted by mmascolino at 11:58 AM on September 5 [5 favorites]

Nabokov's Pale Fire. It STILL blows my mind every time I reread it.
posted by Dr. Wu at 12:00 PM on September 5 [5 favorites]

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke reinvigorated my love of surreal sci-fi adjacent fiction.
posted by _DB_ at 12:18 PM on September 5 [12 favorites]

Best answer: Anything by Carmen Maria Machado but especially In the Dream House
posted by lapis at 12:22 PM on September 5 [6 favorites]

Best answer: The novella "Steffie Speck in the Jaws of Life" in Dubravka Ugresic's In the Jaws of Life and Other Stories
posted by lapis at 12:25 PM on September 5

Possibly The Last Samurai (has nothing at all to do with the movie).

Also, probably Little, Big.
posted by kristi at 12:27 PM on September 5 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Mefi favorite Riddley Walker puts you inside a character's head in a time and place in a way I've never experienced before, by narrating the story in a post-apocalyptic version of English.

I'd also suggest How To Be Both by Ali Smith, mentioned in the thread Knile linked.
posted by Gorgik at 12:29 PM on September 5 [8 favorites]

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Years of Rice and Salt.
posted by mygothlaundry at 12:30 PM on September 5 [1 favorite]

Atonement by Ian McEwan. I read it 20 years ago and it still stops me in my tracks.
posted by mochapickle at 12:33 PM on September 5 [3 favorites]

If Heinlein isn't verboten, ...All You Zombies is good enough and short enough I carry the PDF on my phone.
posted by k3ninho at 12:37 PM on September 5 [3 favorites]

Mefi's own Peter Watts wrote the other stunner of a short story in free PDF that I carry with me -- Malak.

(Watts, previously.)
posted by k3ninho at 12:46 PM on September 5 [3 favorites]

18th century novels are so structurally inventive! They were still figuring out what a novel is, so anything kinda went. As mentioned above, Tristram Shandy is great, but it’s hard going for the first ~85%. Tom Jones has interesting structure and more of an actual fun plot.

Thomas Pynchon also writes detective stories that are literarily interesting and a hell of a lot of fun. Gravity’s Rainbow gave me the feeling you’re talking about, but also I only made it about a third of the way through, it’s A LOT.
posted by momus_window at 12:56 PM on September 5 [2 favorites]

Seconding any W.G. Sebald at all.

In terms of older books, I would recommend Bleak House - the narrator's voice, the humor, the eerie qualities, the creepy-almost-horror of certain sections. Bleak House turned me into a Dickens fan. People have this idea of Dickens that is filtered through various movie versions of A Christmas Carol - a sentimental treacle-y writer full of old-fashioned and empty moralizing, who can read the death of Little Nell without laughing*, etc etc. Dickens is a flawed writer - he is sexist and although he walked back some of his anti-Semitic characterization after friends criticized him, I mean, you cannot love that or ignore it. But if you're in a headspace to deal with old books whose ideas you cannot 100% endorse, it is an important read.

Also, if you have patience for and interest in the novels of yesteryear, I recommend Wilhelm Meister. It will blow you away with its insightfulness and modernity - when you read it against, eg, Fielding or Lewis, it's amazing to realize that these authors were rough contemporaries. Not to knock Fielding (or, sort of, not to knock Lewis) but the approach is so different it will amaze you. (Okay technically Fielding died the year Goethe was born, but still...the leaps as the novel develops in the late 18th century are amazing. Also Fielding is great.)

And Mrs. Dalloway, one of the most wonderful novels in the world! Mops the floor with a tremendous number of novels. A truly unforgettable experience. I mean, it's sad, but it's like being carried on a cold river of flowers.

*So, Little Nell? Is actually a homeless young teenager being pursued by a literal stalker pedophile while she tries to care for her grandfather with dementia. Ha ha lol, Oscar, does that hit too close to home what with the teenage sex workers you hired?
posted by Frowner at 1:01 PM on September 5 [5 favorites]

Gorgik: I'd also suggest How To Be Both by Ali Smith ...
I was bored by this, it did not surprise me. The characters are charming and I wouldn't tell people not to read it but it was not delightful or special.
posted by k3ninho at 1:02 PM on September 5

Best answer: My answer to this question will forever be:

Passage by Connie Willis

I can't even count how many book threads I've dropped that suggestion into in the years since I read it. It is stunning.
posted by fairlynearlyready at 1:27 PM on September 5 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Lilith's Brood by Octavia Butler

In a very different way, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig
posted by underclocked at 1:29 PM on September 5 [3 favorites]

Anything by Nabokov, but especially "Pale Fire" and especially certain short stories, in particular (for mind-blowing purposes) "Ultima Thule."

"The Master and Margarita" by Mikhail Bulgakov.
posted by virve at 1:38 PM on September 5 [5 favorites]

The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra is a series of short stories that is anything but.
posted by SegFaultCoreDump at 1:44 PM on September 5

Septology by Jon Fosse

When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut

An Inventory of Losses by Judith Schalansky

Satantango by László Krasznahorkai

A Shock by Keith Ridgway

The Correspondence by JD Daniels

And the greatest short story book ever: Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson

And I will second Sebald, Lispector, Calvino, Russel Hoban, and Helen DeWitt's Last Samurai.
posted by dobbs at 3:49 PM on September 5 [1 favorite]

I feel like my suggestions are kind of obvious and you’ll have already read them if you’re a reader, but “I didn’t know you could do that!” was the exact reaction I had the first time I read DH Lawrence - I had no idea you could write about people’s internal lives like that. Sons and Lovers, I think that was.

Also, Oliver Twist is the only book I’ve ever read that had a moment that actually physically made me jump/gasp with shock in the way I usually only do with films.
posted by penguin pie at 3:51 PM on September 5

Anything by Julio Cortazar - you can read one of his short stories online in Electric Literature for a free taste, but if you like Borges he will absolutely blow your mind.

George Saunders is a cliche recommendation but Civilwarland in Bad Decline blew my mind as did Lincoln in the Bardo - I was so surprised you could do that with a novel

Kelly Link, Get in Trouble, for extremely surreal gothic stories where you start off thinking you know where this is going and by the end you are disconnected from consensus reality.
posted by MarianHalcombe at 3:52 PM on September 5 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, and if you ever read plays, Blasted by Sarah Kane put my jaw On. The. Floor.

I don’t even know if that it’s a recommendation or not - it’s an utterly brutalising read, but one that changed the way I think about what theatre can do. And the final scene definitely had me piling gasp upon gasp. My mental response was something like: “Oh I didn’t know you could do that on stage. Well you can’t do that on stage. Oh my god you CAN’T do that on stage…” :O

But it comes with content warnings for… just about everything.
posted by penguin pie at 4:00 PM on September 5

Best answer: A few ideas here.
posted by latkes at 4:02 PM on September 5 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Villette blew my mind when I read it earlier this year. Do not read anything about it first. Charlotte Bronte was doing some weird experimental shit in that novel that I have never seen attempted in the same way in any other book.
posted by potrzebie at 5:07 PM on September 5 [5 favorites]

Best answer: The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton
posted by Saucy Possum at 5:42 PM on September 5 [3 favorites]

Slade House was my introduction to the David Mitchell-verse; I never considered myself as having any interest in speculative fiction, but that book completely forced me to reconsider. Cloud Atlas is the most famous of his novels (for good reason -- it's pretty dazzling). My personal favorite is probably The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.
posted by paper scissors sock at 6:04 PM on September 5 [2 favorites]

Best answer: OH! OH! OH! Now I remember!

26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss by Kij Johnson. Amazing.

Oh, and, well, geez, if plays are acceptable: Tom Stoppard's Arcadia is possibly my favorite thing ever. The way everything spirals open and also clicks together is truly wonderful to me.
posted by kristi at 6:32 PM on September 5 [6 favorites]

Novel Explosives by Jim Gauer

Solenoid by Mircea Cartarescu

Zeroville by Steve Erickson
posted by dobbs at 7:06 PM on September 5 [1 favorite]

I just devoured "The Postcard" by Anne Berest (English translation from French) and have to reread it. Inventive structure, a hybrid memoir/novel.
posted by morspin at 7:28 PM on September 5

Moby Dick. When I read it the first time I had no idea what to expect, really, and Melville kind of astonished me. He just did whatever he want. There’s a chapter that just, out of nowhere, is written as a play script. Really opened my mind about what I could do in my own writing.
posted by Well I never at 9:00 PM on September 5 [8 favorites]

My Year Abroad, by Chang-Rae Lee. It picks you up, shakes you around, and spits you out. It is an experience. (CW: sexual assault)

Piranesi, by Susannah Clarke. Best if you don’t know too much about this one before you start.

Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernadine Evaristo. Simply stunning.

Women Talking, by Miriam Toews. (CW: sexual assault)
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 9:57 PM on September 5

+1 to Sebald and to Moby Dick.

Sofia Samatar, anything, A Stranger In Olondria is what got me but The White Mosque has Sebald vibes.

Greer Gilman, Moonwise, you did what with words?

Octavia Butler, a short story, "Bloodchild" [colonialism and body horror CW]
posted by away for regrooving at 12:19 AM on September 6 [4 favorites]

The Fifth Wound by Aurora Mattia
posted by kokaku at 4:19 AM on September 6

I read Olga Ravn's The Employees and then immediately re-read it, because I was like "what just happened? what was this book?"

Also highly recommend Kiese Layton's Long Division as a fascinating and often hilarious story that's structurally unique.
posted by daisystomper at 7:16 AM on September 6 [1 favorite]

The last two things that fit this description for me were Namwali Serpell's The Old Drift (afrofuturism! magical realism! intersecting multigenerational stories!) and Olga Tokarczuk's Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (the voice and cadence are completely unique). The Complete Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino is a complete mindfrill in the best of all possible ways.
posted by SinAesthetic at 12:26 PM on September 6

All three books in the "children of" series by Adrian Tchaikovsky do this in different ways - he makes a real attempt to understand what a non-human consciousness might look like, and the way that biology relates to thought.

Definitely seconding Carmen Maria Machado - In The Dream House is excellent, but if you've ever watched an episode of Law and Order SVU, be sure to check out her novella "Especially Heinous" from Her Body and Other Parties.

Oh, and Devil House by John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats.

Finally, I need to stick up for Infinite Jest a little bit. It's much more fun and, more importantly, warm-hearted than its more obnoxious fans would indicate.
posted by Ragged Richard at 12:52 PM on September 6

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies blew my mind. I could not believe short stories could be so impactful.
posted by lyssabee at 1:54 PM on September 6

Agree with Sebald and Riddley Walker. I'll add Roberto Bolaño's Savage Detectives (formally inventive, odd structure, meta commentary about avant guarde lit) and Nazi Literature in the Americas (a made up inventory of non existant characters, a satire of the Latin American literary left). Stanislaw Lem's A Perfect Vacuum is weird and funny. I really like Rivka Galchen.
posted by latkes at 6:49 PM on September 6

A lot of works by Mark Dunn give me this response.
posted by creatrixtiara at 10:43 PM on September 6

Response by poster: This is an incredible list! I am so thrilled. I don't read plays very often but definitely going to pick up some suggestions. Just requested Arcadia from the library :)

Ted Chiang is definitely on this list for me (found out about him on metafilter as well!). As is Octavia Butler, Carmen Maria Machado. Love George Saunders, Kiese Layton, Olga Tokarczuk and Kelly Link too (omg if you haven't read white cat, black dog go do it!).

Thank you for all this brilliance, hope others enjoy this incredible reading list too <3
posted by allymusiqua at 10:40 AM on September 7 [4 favorites]

Mohamed Mbougar Sarr's The Most Secret Memory of Men is about to knock the Anglophone world's socks off. It's out in English on September 26th I believe, and you should definitely check it out.
posted by soundofsuburbia at 10:51 PM on September 12

Just remembered another author who may fit the bill: Padgett Powell. His novel Edisto is like if Catcher in the Rye were set in the coastal American South, and his short story collection Typical is more experimental (and I'd argue it avoids the show-offness you're trying to avoid). His writing strikes a good balance between masterful descriptive style, vivid characters, and word economy. Just a note, though, that at times Powell employs racial and gender language that reflects his characters' time and place.
posted by Rykey at 6:45 AM on September 15

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