The best books in which mystery is given an existential makeover

John Biscello Author Of Broken Land, a Brooklyn Tale
By John Biscello

The Books I Picked & Why

Kafka on the Shore

By Haruki Murakami

Book cover of Kafka on the Shore

Why this book?

There are some labyrinths you enter, in which you want to remain lost. While simultaneously longing for a way out. Haruki Murakami’s beguiling masterpiece, Kafka on the Shore, qualifies as that sort of labyrinth-as-novel. A coming-of-age odyssey with a metaphysical slant, the journey which the teen protagonist, Kafka, undertakes, lures the reader through a kaleidoscopic realm steeped in pop culture, romance, shadow-play, family trauma, and ultimately, salvation. When I finished this novel, or found myself ejected from the labyrinth back into the “real” world, echoes of wonder and intrigue continued to haunt and inspire me for a long time afterward. 

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Her Body and Other Parties: Stories

By Carmen Maria Machado

Book cover of Her Body and Other Parties: Stories

Why this book?

One of the most riveting story collections that I’ve read in the past decade is Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties. A virtuoso feat of new wave gothic and totemic feminism, Machado’s collection casts a lantern light on the female-body-as-haunted-house; chambers of secrets that play unsettled host to a litany of dreams and nightmares. “The Husband Stitch” is a psychologically taut remix of the classic horror tale, “The Green Ribbon,” while my favorite story in the collection, “Real Women Have Bodies,” is a dystopic gem in which women, prey to an epidemic of dematerialization, have begun to fade from existence. The book, as a whole, possesses the feel of a multi-part Black Mirror episode, written and directed by the gothic stepchild of Shirley Jackson and Camille Paglia. 

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The Natashas

By Yelena Moskovich

Book cover of The Natashas

Why this book?

Ukrainian-born, Yelena Moskovich, is one of the most daring and radical stylists working in contemporary literature, and I was “bewitched, bothered and bewildered,” in the best possible ways, by her debut novel, The Natashas. Set in contemporary Paris, it is through the mirrored introversion of two protagonists—Beatrice, a jazz singer, and Cesar, an actor—that the dramatic tensions between self and other, silence and voice, are played out, with “the Natashas,” women resigned to a void, functioning as the novel’s haunted, nesting doll chorus. Moskovich’s book is an experiment that closes in on itself, and with claustrophobic intimacy produces a strange, brooding, and salacious form of music. 

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The New York Trilogy

By Paul Auster

Book cover of The New York Trilogy

Why this book?

Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy—comprising of City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room—originally published in 1985-86, carved out a niche all its own, what you might call existential noir. Here, the essence of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, is given a philosophical facelift, with Auster transforming the classic detective novel into a meditation on identity and self, as reflected in a house of fractured mirrors. As someone who grew up in Brooklyn—a fan of noir in film and literature, and of works that are speculative and mind-bending—my discovery of The New York Trilogy was like stumbling onto a literary oasis, which became a fixed source of delight and inspiration. 

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Room to Dream

By David Lynch, Kristine McKenna

Book cover of Room to Dream

Why this book?

While this book is a bio-memoir, I included it on my list as a correspondent homage to the cinematic shaman of twisted mysteries, David Lynch. For the past forty plus years, Lynch has dreamscaped a long day’s journey into night, taking audiences on a hallucinated tour through the underworld of their own splintered psyche. Lynch’s oeuvre, a steam-punk Frankenstein of interchangeable parts, speaks to the savvy and glee of a mad scientist at play, while his blending of the eternal with American pop has given us a surrealistic soap opera with an eye toward the numinous. Written in alternating chapters, between Lynch and McKenna, this book is a must-read for fans of Lynch, but beyond that, if you are a fan and lover of cinema, creative process, and following your bliss, Room to Dream strikes those chords with a down-to-earth immediacy. It is, in essence, one man’s multi-layered valentine to his enduring flame: the art life.

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