Aimee Bender is the best-selling author of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. In her new novel, The Butterfly Lampshade, a young woman tries to make sense of visions she’s had since childhood, when her mother was taken away.
The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn Saks (2007).
This truly remarkable memoir chronicles the experiences of lawyer and professor Elyn Saks, who lives with schizophrenia. She writes about her times in hospitals and on the analytic couch with incredible clarity, honesty, and curiosity.
Big Machine by Victor LaValle (2009).
LaValle writes horror, but horror as a way to move in closer to the complexities of our minds and our society. This novel takes the reader on a wild coast-to-coast journey that begins in an unusual library in a forest and includes many vividly memorable scenes, allowing for amazing, surreal access to our protagonist’s psyche and the inner workings of America.
The Freddie Stories by Lynda Barry (1999).
I remember reading this years ago and crying, moved by how intensely Barry dives into a child’s point of view through words and illustrations. There’s no one like her in that way. Freddie is having a rough time: with school, with his own fluctuating grasp on things, with family, with his dark thoughts and fears, and Barry jumps into his world and enacts it with her usual compassion and realness and love.
Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson (1992).
This classic collection of short stories is about a character dealing with addiction, but Johnson masterfully elucidates the “spirit” component of alcoholic “spirits”: His writing is almost otherworldly in its attunement to what’s below surfaces, gliding into these spaces with words that capture our most nuanced internal states.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (2016).
The narrator of this novel works at a Tokyo convenience store and loves the routine of the job; she is also something of an anthropologist, noting her observations of human behavior in a distant and yet utterly open way. Watching her try to participate in the world is both moving and unsettling.
Remainder by Tom McCarthy (2005).
My favorite part of this novel is how the main character is so fixated on re-creating a very specific scene from his past, and he’s not even sure why. It’s an act of theater, and memory, and something powerfully unconscious — and we are witness to the process. He is a kind of inverted Proust, making the madeleine from scratch to evoke the thing you didn’t know needed evoking.
This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.