We’ve all felt it, at least most of us, that sense that someone is watching us, judging us, maybe planning some fate for us that we wouldn’t willingly embrace. Maybe this secretive plotting is just on an interpersonal level, involving lies and manipulations from those we think we can trust. Or maybe it goes further, stretching out to national or global conspiracies. Worst of all, maybe these truths we can barely sense hidden behind the faces of others point towards something even larger, a cosmic or existential plot against us, either as a species or as a spectacularly unfortunate individual. While paranoia isn’t usually as strong an emotion as fear or outright horror, it does belong to the same family of uneasiness.
These novels won’t likely terrify you, but they may burrow into your mind in a way that reading about creaks in old mansions and the bloodlust of fictional psychopaths won’t. These books, after all, suggest that the world may not be what you think it is, and neither, most disturbingly, may you be. I would like to add a warning here: there are real psychological illnesses that exacerbate the feelings of paranoia and suspicion that are natural to our poor big-brained species. If you have one of these illnesses, you may want to think carefully before diving into these sorts of fictions. Exploring fears fictionally sometimes gives you a handle on them, a grip you couldn’t have got otherwise but by painful experience. But for others, fiction like this can add to their mental distortions. Now that that’s out of the way, I hope you enjoy these books and I hope you understand why They wanted me to recommend them to you. It’s all part of the plan, you see.
The Trial (1925)
If there is a poet laureate of the literature of paranoia, those laurels belong without any doubt to Bohemian/Czech author Franz Kafka. Not only have his mostly posthumously published works directly or indirectly inspired most of the works on this list, even his name has become synonymous with the bizarre, the labyrinthian, and the inexplicably tortuous (and torturous) windings of bureaucracies and conspiracies in the words “kafkaesque” and “kafkan.”
In this, his best-known longer work, we meet the unfortunate Josef K., who wakes one morning to find two agents from an unidentified agency in his apartment there to arrest him. For what crime? That’s exactly what poor Josef spends most of this novel trying to figure out. He’s drawn through a ridiculously long and seemingly meaningless process in a system already determined to find him guilty. This novel is often seen as a sort of prefiguration or even premonition of the horrors of the Stalinist and Hitlerian regimes with their mass arrests and liquidations, but Kafka can also be seen as pointing to a deeper flaw in humans in general, one that leaves us with a haunting feeling of being guilty of some crime we can barely understand.
The Day the Call Came (1965)
Ever feel uncertain of yourself and your life? Ever feel maybe there is another reason you are here, a reason that would make sense of the chaos that inevitably invades your life or the stultifying order under which it feels you are being crushed? What if that secret plan for your life one day materialized out of nowhere? And what if that secret plan, that sense that could be made of the disparate parts of your life, what if it was terrible?
In this strange little novel, one almost lost to cultural amnesia, we follow Harry Bale, a fairly successful suburbanite with a wife and the requisite two kids. Harry’s life is about to get turned upside down, because one fine day he gets a letter ordering him to “Stand by.” For Harry, this is the day the call comes, the moment in which his hidden destiny as a spy for a shadowy organization will come to fruition. That this may involve him having to do some unpleasant things bothers Harry a little, but not as much as the idea that there are forces around him working against his mission. This is a nice little slice of suburban banality, neighborly suspicion, and a vision of the lengths people may go to make sense of their lives, regardless of the truth or sensibility of that sense.
The Crying of Lot 49 (1965)
Oedipa Maas is a bored housewife married to a radio jockey and who i seeing a psychotherapist who seems to have a few screws loose himself. One day, Oedipa finds she has been made the executrix of her former boyfriend’s estate. When she travels to San Narciso (one of many national inventions Pynchon regularly inserts in his novels), she finds a chain of hints and strange coincidences that seem to point to a centuries-old secret dispute between, believe it or not, warring postal systems. Supposedly, one of these mail delivery systems, Trystero, was driven out of existence alongside the other rivals to the dominant system of which the authorities approve. But what if Trystero still exists? Could it be having some occult effect on the course of history?
This bonkers conspiracy theory drives this short novel, but it opens up onto issues both larger and stranger. And, as appropriate in a novel that represents one of the early examples of American post-modern fiction, The Crying of Lot 49 is filled with clues and mis-directions as to what it may all be about, clues that range from the names of the zany characters to the use of a play within the novel that may point to the truth… Or may be just another random element in a world of chaos Oedipa only wishes would make sense. Pynchon’s longer novels take these games to even greater lengths, but The Crying is a good way into his symbol-laden, stylized worlds.
The Illuminatus! Trilogy (1975)
Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson
From personal experience, I would like to begin by suggesting that readers avoid heavy usage of any narcotics that produce paranoid ideation while reading this wacky trilogy. Just… just trust me on this one, okay? The plot, a baggy and winding monster that you will most likely lose track of somewhere along the way (this doesn’t necessarily ruin the fun), begins with the bombing of a left-wing investigative magazine, one that was bringing into question primary parts of American mythology.
That this eventually leads to not one but two competing global conspiracies with ties to the occult, to H. P. Lovecraft learning that his fiction may not have been all that fictional, and to talking dolphins is something you probably already guessed. Just in case you didn’t, you really should check out this book, because it seems determined to blend as many bizarre theories as possible together into one poppy confection, and reading it will wake you from your intellectual slumber, you sheeple. That, and it is a fun, kooky ride through our cultural undercurrents.
A Scanner Darkly (1977)
Philip K. Dick
If Franz Kafka had been fed a steady diet of science fiction and LSD, he may have become someone like the incomparable Philip Dick. Alien god-minds, international conspiracies, androids that think they are human and humans who fear they are androids, time travel, and horrific applications of occult technologies infest Dick’s prodigious output. Seriously: the guy wrote more than forty novels and 121 short stories in around thirty years. This novel, weirdly, is one of his most grounded, at least in that it doesn’t invoke most any of the above plot devices. It does, though, really nail down this sense of identity loss and suspicion that this list is all about, and it does so in a relatively believable plot.
Bob Arctor seems to be a shiftless druggie, one who spends his time getting wasted with his group of frenemies and fellow users, but Bob has a secret: Bob is an undercover agent, one trying to track the distribution of Substance D, a powerful new hallucinogen. As a supposed member of this drug culture, though, Bob is forced to take D and to take it liberally, and unfortunately, D has begun to splinter Bob’s mind. Soon, he will start losing the plot, and his mission may turn in on itself.
Foucault’s Pendulum (1988)
Foucault’s Pendulum seems to have one of two effects on its readers: it either sucks them into its long and winding tale of crackpots, wannabe mystics, and conspiracy theories growing out of control, or it strikes people as impenetrable. My response was the former and it changed the way I understood meaning-making in general. It also eventually led me to delve into Eco’s other novels, the most famous of which is the 14th century murder mystery The Name of the Rose. This novel, though, takes place firmly in the present, or at least the present of the 1980’s.
It’s about three men who grow so interested in the histories and evolutions of conspiracy theories that, on a lark, they decide to make one of their own, using a computer to draw connections between different elements of the world’s cultural history and tying them together with the occult. In their investigations of these fragments of pseudo-knowledge, though, these men come to wonder whether they are just playing a game or whether they have indeed stumbled over a global conspiracy. And they aren’t the only ones asking themselves precisely these questions.
Foucault’s Pendulum now reads like it was written as an intellectual satire of breathless pop conspiracy theory novels like The Da Vinci Code, even though Eco’s novel came over ten years before that one. Eco himself drew this comparison, and once claimed that Da Vinci‘s author, Dan Brown, was merely a character in this better, smarter, and wiser novel.
While all these global and even cosmic conspiracy theories can be the fuel of many a paranoid fixation, most people’s unreasonable suspicions and anxieties are about the more mundane, the people and situations with which they are surrounded, as well the personal histories with which they must come to grips. Patrick McGrath’s psychologically nuanced neo-gothic mysteries are minor masterpieces of this brand of fiction.
Spider, which would eventually be turned into a film by David Cronenberg, is about Dennis Cleg, a deeply troubled and introspective man who has just been let out of a psychiatric hospital and must live in a halfway house. Cleg isn’t just struggling with his current, rather grim surroundings: he’s also trying to make sense of his tragic past. The novel moves back and forth between these two stories, and we gradually hear a story of adultery, cruelty, and hidden secrets, the most hidden of which are always those we hide from ourselves. McGrath’s a great stylist and a keen student of psychology.
The Invisibles (1994-2000)
Grant Morrison’s talents have often been tied up with superhero franchises, but their most unique work is surely this series and the standalone graphic novel The Filth, which is just so brilliant and bizarre I couldn’t dream of summarizing it. The Invisibles is a little easier to describe, though that’s a bit deceptive as this series eventually turns inside out, making you question not only what you’ve already read but also, just maybe, the texture of your “real” world.
Here, we follow Dane McGowan, an angry young British teen who is taken in by a mysterious and colorful group of rebels who call themselves “The Invisibles.” This group is dedicated to fighting a dark force that may be behind some of the worst aspects of human history and that may have worse yet planned. The Invisibles combines the best elements of the Illuminatus! books, the wacky re-readings of history and re-mixes of history, with the more metaphysical, psychological, and spiritual concerns of Philip Dick. It even incorporates some of Umberto Eco’s criticisms of these theories into its structure. Really just a great series and very worth searching out.
The Double (2002)
You are you. That’s one of the few guarantees, few really stable things you can rely on in this troubling world: whatever anyone else can say about the way you are leading your life, it is yours alone. But what if one night you were watching a movie and you saw, there in the background and playing a quite inconsequential character, someone who looked exactly like you with the small but strange exception that they wore a moustache? Would you let this go, just shrug and move on with your life? Or would it gnaw at you until you felt forced to reach out to this stranger in an attempt, however dangerous, to find out if there was a reason you were the two peas in the proverbial pod?
This is precisely the dilemma of Tertuliano Afonso, a lonely high school teacher, in this psychological mystery by Nobel Prize winner José Saramago. A real treat for me in all of Saramago’s novels is his narrative voice, a garrulous, jokey, and warm if cynical presence that enlivens his plots. Denis Villeneuve directed an excellent adaptation of this novel in Enemy, one that introduces some potentially science-fictional/horrific elements, but missing from that film, necessarily, is Saramago’s voice. For that, you’re going to have to go to the source.
I’m ending this list on a light note, although this book above all the others will probably speak more closely to the everyday frustrations and suspicions of regular people. Max Barry is a funny and inventive satirist, and if you haven’t read his takedown of corporate over-reach and libertarian utopias Jennifer Government, then I strongly recommend you look for a copy. Company isn’t laugh-out-loud funny in the way that book is, but this one takes on its subject in a more realistic way. Company reads a bit as if Franz Kafka had been forced to write a season of The Office.
Stephen Jones is a new employee of Zephyr Holdings, Inc., but his determination to succeed in his role as an assistant in the Sales Training department runs into a brick wall when he starts asking the most basic questions, questions like “What does our company actually do?” or “Why is a missing donut worth an office-level investigation?” There are strange things afoot at Zephyr, and although this novel is neither supernatural nor violent, it can all too easily make people stuck in similar jobs wonder what exactly they are being used for. Not that that’s a bad thing: maybe we could all use more of this particular brand of paranoia.