It’s a plot

Salon's book editors pick the 10 most paranoid tomes of all time.

Topics: Laura Miller,

Paranoia is, of course, a form of desire — the fantasy of being so important that everyone in the world is out to get you. Writers, who usually feel they’re not getting enough attention, are particularly susceptible. Here is an eclectic and far from comprehensive list of our favorites. Can’t find your own personal picks? Naturally, it’s a plot.

1. “The Crying of Lot 49″ by Thomas Pynchon Pynchon might just be the quintessential paranoid novelist because his books stoke his readers’ obsession with finding significance in even the tiniest detail. In this, his bounciest effort, Oedipa Maas, a California housewife, stumbles across a conspiracy involving what seems to be a vast, underground postal service.

2. “A Scanner Darkly” by Philip K. Dick If Pynchon isn’t the paranoid’s poet laureate, then Philip K. Dick is. In this classic tale of drugs and deception, an undercover narcotics agent develops a chemically induced split personality and starts narcing on himself.

3. “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James First mistake: taking a job as governess to two children at a secluded country estate, on the condition that you never again contact the person who hired you. It turns out that your predecessor is dead, along with her lover — so why do you keep catching glimpses of them? The children behave strangely, but they’re so innocent — or are they?

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4. “The Ministry of Fear” by Graham Greene From the man who taught John le Carré everything he knows, the story of an innocent man in wartime London who is urged to enter a lottery at a fair and winds up winning a lovely cake. Uh-oh.

5. “Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier Mousy feminine insecurity gets elevated to the pitch of paranoid fugue in this melodrama about the second Mrs. DeWinter. She’s convinced that she can never live up to the glamour of the first, and that neither her husband nor their sinister housekeeper is being entirely honest about her predecessor’s fate.

6. “Quincunx” by Charles Palliser Imagine a version of “Oliver Twist” in which most of the characters are only pretending to be the easily pegged Victorian types favored by Dickens. They’re really involved in a mind-bogglingly baroque plot to trick the narrator out of the inheritance that is every 19th century hero’s rightful due.

7. “Suspects” by David Thomson It’s a simple biographical encyclopedia of memorable movie characters, mostly from film noir. Only they seem to be connected to one another in various unpleasant, subterranean ways, and the guy who’s writing it all down, well, there’s something unsettlingly familiar about him — what could it be?

8. “Amnesia Moon” by Jonathan Lethem A guy named Chaos ekes out a living in the post-apocalyptic American West, until he discovers that the bombs never fell and that he isn’t really a guy named Chaos after all. Sounds like a good excuse for a road trip, and it is.

9. “The Missing World” by Margot Livesey Just after breaking up with her boyfriend, Hazel loses most of her memory in an accident. Her ex-boyfriend decides to fill her in on the past — leaving out the part where she dumped him. Talk about being stuck in a bad relationship.

10. “The Names” by Don DeLillo De Lillo is the master of that place where paranoia meets existential angst, and “The Names” may be his most diffusely threatening novel. It’s set among Americans living abroad and in thrall to elaborate dangers they can’t possibly understand — should they be fearing the CIA? Terrorists? A shadowy sect devoted to the alphabet?

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site, magiciansbook.com.

Maria Russo has been a writer and editor at The Los Angeles Times, The New York Observer and Salon, and is a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review.

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