We all love to be fooled. Some authors take this a little further than others. While all narrative is trickery in a sense, there are books that mess with the fundamentals of time and space so thoroughly, you have to open up a spreadsheet in order to figure out the timeline. Since our sense of cause-and-effect is so essential to our sanity, this messed with can be an exhilarating experience—which makes the following six books mind-bending literary achievements.
All the Missing Girls, by Megan Miranda
Miranda takes a typical thriller plot—a crime from someone’s past seems to be repeated shortly after she returns to her small hometown—and twists it into something amazing by telling the story backwards. The opening sets the premise: a woman named Nicolette returns to the town where her friend disappeared 20 years before. Her circle of friends fell under suspicion, but the missing girl was never found and no charges were filed. Shortly after Nicolette’s return, a girl disappears in a similar way. Then the story jumps ahead fifteen days and is slowly told backwards. The end result is so tense, you can barely stand it.
Good as Gone, by Amy Gentry
Taking its cue from the horrific story of Elizabeth Smart, Gentry’s new thriller tells the story of a 13-year old girl, Julie Whitaker, who is kidnapped from her home while her younger sister cowers in the closet. Eight years later, Julie suddenly returns, telling a grim story of abuse, rape, and other horrors. The question of whether this really is Julie is up-front—but is clouded by the reverse chronology Gentry employs, and a series of first-person accounts by women and girls who may or may not be Julie or someone else. Gentry uses this technique to explore what makes us us, the very nature of identity—and the result is thrilling, if challenging on the first read-through.
Time’s Arrow, by Martin Amis
Amis crafts a story about a man living in reverse, beginning with his death and spiraling backwards to his birth. This seems straightforward enough, except the narrator is a distinct, separate entity from the protagonist, and the narrator is…confused, and seemingly unaware of the true sequence of events. It can take the reader some time to figure out what’s happening—especially since conversations are also reported in reverse. That the character was involved in the torture and murder of Jews at Auschwitz slowly brings to the fore the theme of the ability of a movement like Nazism to distort reality, where truth is lies and brutality actually heals. If there was ever a novel you need to immediately read a second time, this is it.
Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
Heller’s brilliant novel has a surprisingly complex treatment of time, made even more challenging by the huge cast of characters and the zero amount of hand-holding he offers. Characters frequently refer to events the reader hasn’t yet witnessed, and the heavy doses of contradiction and irony muddy the waters further. The tone also shifts, beginning in absurdity and comedy and slowly drifting towards a final section that’s much darker and more violent. What seems at first to be a series of comic vignettes slowly coalesces into a narrative—but only if you’re paying close attention.
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Story of Your Life, by Ted Chiang
The short story that the film Arrival is based on offers one of the most surprising and affecting uses of a complex chronology in recent years (spoilers follow—seriously, don’t read this if you haven’t yet seen the movie or read Chiang’s excellent story). Interspersed with the account of a linguist’s mission to decode the strange language of aliens who have arrived on Earth are thoughts of her daughter—which initially seem like memories, implying a tragedy. The reality is tied to her epiphany regarding the alien language, and changes the whole tone and message of the story in a brilliant twist that will stick with you.
Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
Cloud Atlas is structured as nested stories sharing reincarnated characters, either repeating the fate of their previous selves or rebelling against them. The characters’ souls undergo various transformations as the timeline advances—but that advancement is difficult to follow, as each story is interrupted at a key moment, at which point, the next story begins—until we get to the sixth, central story. From that point on, each of the first five stories is continued, finishing each narrative. The connections between the stories go far beyond the characters, making this one of the densest and most complicated narratives of all time, a structure the movie version couldn’t even begin to replicate.
Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace
One of the most complicated novels in general has the sort of timeline that isn’t exactly obscured, but becomes so tangled and complex that people are still arguing over certain scenes based entirely on what characters are described as wearing. In short, the story begins at the end, snaps back about a year, and never actually bridges events to the end that was the beginning. In-between is a huge cast of characters who seem to move about in the background like NPCs in a video game, their actions sometimes not evident until many, many pages later, when you may very well have forgotten all about them. You may enjoy Infinite Jest, you may think you understand it on some level (or many levels), but you will never be able to completely untangle its chronology.