The Best Fiction Books

The Best Ergodic Fiction

recommended by Arianna Reiche

At the End of Every Day by Arianna Reiche

At the End of Every Day
by Arianna Reiche


The best fiction doesn’t have to be straightforward, and some novels contain clever devices to make the reader complicit in the story itself. Arianna Reiche, lecturer in metafiction at City, University of London, recommends five gamified novels that subvert our ideas of how fiction works.

Interview by Uri Bram

At the End of Every Day by Arianna Reiche

At the End of Every Day
by Arianna Reiche

Buy all books

You’re recommending five books in the category of novels that feel like games or puzzles. Can you tell us a little bit more about what that means?

I’m obsessed with novels that feel like puzzles even if they’re not overtly puzzle books. The technical term is ergodic fiction, which can involve narrative metalepsis (which I study), and it all sort of fits under the umbrella of metafiction. Outside of my PhD, I prefer to steer clear of those definitions because in the field of slightly-gamified-fiction (stories that feel like puzzles, and stories that feel like games) there’s so much room to play in! Authors have been doing this kind of experimentation for a long time, even before those technical definitions existed.

For example, as well as writing science fiction novels, H.G. Wells wrote two books describing games with toy soldiers, Floor Games and Little Wars, which became the foundation for war gaming. At the end of the 19th century, specifically in Europe, there was a cultural movement where people took the themes explored in science fiction and created parlor games that involved a lot of storytelling. Just after the Second World War, this turned into tabletop gaming and was smushed together with postmodernism to create ergodic fiction, metafiction, metalepsis, and all kinds of fun, puzzle-like fiction.

What a fun world to explore. Your first ergodic fiction recommendation is Maze, by Christopher Manson. Can you tell us more about it?

Maze is a book that my brother and I have adored since early childhood. I don’t remember a time when we didn’t have it. It was published in 1985, and it’s a children’s puzzle book (more literally so than the other books in this list) in which you’re the guardian of an enormous mansion that a group of schoolchildren come to visit on a school trip. At the first entry room, which is illustrated alongside some text from you (as the narrator), the children and you (as the reader) must choose between four doorways that each have numbers above them indicating which page to turn to.

Each room contains tons of cryptic clues, visuals, and riddles that are supposed to lead you to make the right choices. In theory, you can reach the end of the game—the book, the house—in sixteen steps. I have never done it, and I’ve never known anyone who solved this book. I remember in the early days of the internet, one of the first things I ever searched was ‘how do you beat Maze?’ Only a handful of people had solved it, and they were really bad at describing exactly how to do it.

I like that it is overtly a puzzle book, and that it’s heavily implied that you, as the narrator, are a ghoul or the guardian of some type of underworld. The book is illustrated in a style that reminds me of Venetian etchings. There’s something very Paradise Lost about it, something very spooky throughout the whole thing. Now, when revisiting it, I approach it as a novel. Similar to Hopscotch, by Julio Cortázar, it’s a game in which you have options about how you consume the work.

The other thing that sticks with me about Maze is that there’s one room that’s a true ‘game over’—you shouldn’t have gone to this room. It’s completely black, and all you can see are the little eyes of the schoolchildren. No doors; you’ve simply lost the game. I won’t say which page number it is, in case anyone wants to track down this book and try it out, but it left such an impact on me that to this day I superstitiously avoid this number in all areas of my life.

How would you compare the experience of games with the experience of novels, in general?

I think that ergodic fiction is the most fun type of fiction there is. I’m tempted to say it’s the most important type, especially if, as an author, your goal is to deeply affect the reader. There’s nothing like being a reader and suddenly feeling complicit in the story that’s unfolding.

Take a book like Nabokov’s Pale Fire. I doubt that everyone who picked it up in 1962, when it was published, knew the shtick with that book. Realizing that you’re participating in the story you’re reading—through narrative metalepsis, which is movement between story layers—is just the coolest thing on earth. It’s hard for me to enjoy straight fiction now. Like I mentioned, my PhD is in this territory of gamified fiction, so I think about it a lot!

“There’s nothing like being a reader and suddenly feeling complicit in the story that’s unfolding”

I also grew up in a video game studio. My dad is one of the first video game designers. He worked with Gary Gygax and other Dungeons & Dragons people in the 1970s, and has carried on making games to this day so video games were always a part of my childhood. I play a little bit of this and that, though I’m not a huge gamer. But I still find this form – something ‘game-like’ embedded in literature – to be more engrossing. I love the idea that you don’t know the dimensions of a game in the pages of a book; you have to read it to figure it out. There’s something very exciting about that.

Very cool! Your next recommendation for us is the game-like book House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski.

Yes, this book is the nucleic text in this field. It might be the most meta book that there is. It is an iconic Gen-X novel, written throughout the last half of the 1990s and published in 2000.

Johnny Truant, a young man in Los Angeles, is typing pages in the style of diary entries, in the first person. That is the first layer of story that you’re seeing as a reader. Johnny discovers that his neighbor is dead, and when he ventures into his neighbor’s apartment, he finds a trunk filled with pages and pages of a thesis, with faux footnotes, very much like in Pale Fire. The footnotes are basically innumerable, and the very text itself, at a layout level, starts to get peculiar. Words appear to fall off the page as you read them. Whole sections invert themselves and flip around on respective sides of the physical page, that kind of thing.

The neighbor’s thesis is about a documentary film called The Navidson Record, about a man and his family who moved into a house that was a quarter-inch bigger on the inside than on the outside. A door appears one day where there wasn’t a door before and it turns to a very spooky, distinctly horror genre.

The movement between story layers—this metaleptic thing that I mentioned—is bananas. It is really profound. You have Johnny in the first layer, who’s living in LA and losing his mind because he doesn’t know if his neighbor who wrote this thesis—the second story layer—was writing about something real or if it was imaginary. Inside the third story layer—the film—the father of this family is getting sucked into this psychonautical labyrinth within the walls of his home.

The text rearrangement that I mentioned in the neighbor’s thesis gradually amps up through the book and becomes less predictable. If you Google ‘House of Leaves pages,’ you’ll see how the text rearranges itself. There are deletions in the middle of pages; things are upside down; there are codes and riddles. For anyone who likes the idea of gamified reading or puzzles and doesn’t find that there’s a lot of puzzle stuff for grownups in the field of literature..this is the one!

I’ve been too embarrassed to say that I don’t actually know what “metalepsis” means, can you enlighten me?

I forget how I came across it, but when I did, I immediately said to myself, ‘I need to do a PhD about this.’ It is the transgression of a reader or narrator through diegetic levels. House of Leaves is a perfect example. You have a story within a story within a story—at least three layers of that. But it’s not just about this layer-cake structure; it’s about what happens when those layers communicate with each other.

In House of Leaves, when you see the word ‘house’ appear, even in that first layer (where Johnny in Los Angeles is typing), the word is presented differently: in some editions of the book it’s in red, in other editions it’s slipping downward off the page. You come to realize this is because in the third layer of this story, there’s really spooky house stuff going on!

Metalepsis is a way that an author can design a mode of communication between layered stories. The father of this field is a 1960s French theorist called Gérard Genette. He described it as the paradoxical transgression of the boundaries between narrative levels.

Well, let’s transgress over to your next recommendation for us, the prize-winning Milkman by Anna Burns. Can you introduce us to this book?

Anna Burns is a Northern Irish writer, and her third novel, Milkman, won the Booker in 2018. When it came out, I tried reading it, and although I was intrigued by the voice, it didn’t quite capture me. Then, earlier this year, I read Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe, which is a masterful history of Northern Ireland from the 1970s through today. It provides an excellent and very specific way into a topic that I think feels really expansive to a lot of people. It starts with the story of one woman’s disappearance from a housing block in 1972. It’s wonderful.

After reading that, I felt the need to go straight back to Milkman. Its style and voice are striking because everything is written literally and namelessly. The protagonist is called ‘middle sister;’ she has a ‘maybe-boyfriend.’ They refer to ‘the country over the water,’ which is England, and ‘over the border,’ which is the Republic of Ireland. Everything is written that way, and it has a really powerful defamiliarizing effect, even though it’s a very accurate representation of a time and place in our real, lived global history.

It’s set in Belfast in the ’70s, though the city is never named. If you were to say, ‘Here’s a novel about life in Belfast during the Troubles,’ I don’t know that a mass audience would go for that. It might strike people as a whole can of worms that they aren’t qualified to observe through a critical lens, even if it’s art – a novel – that we’re talking about. It sounds unapproachable if you know nothing about the topic.

But something magic happens when you remove the specificity of names, and instead you describe every character and every bit of this city as though it’s a science fiction novel. Saying something like, Third Brother-In-Law was injured when a member of the Loyalist paramilitary set up a blockade in the District Below The Religious Center makes the story feel surreal, and, ultimately I think that allows a reader to feel more emotionally free; you can have your emotional response to the story without the fear that you’re misunderstanding something.

At some point right after reading it, I came across a text about how the British urban planners who redesigned Belfast in the middle of the 20th century were creating this metropolis of dead ends and claustrophobia, and trying to contain a whole population, as if this was a city that was also a prison. You have culs-de-sac that lead to nothing. You have roads where there shouldn’t be roads—they are there to get you lost.

Milkman illustrates that very poetically. I had been thinking about architecture, because I had just written a novel set in a theme park, where so much thought has been put into the architectural experience of whimsy, having choices about where you go, never feeling frightened, and being a good consumer and all that.

This is your new novel, At The End of Every Day, which has recently been published. Can you tell us a bit about it?

This is a book that I started writing in lockdown, when I got really obsessed with videos of animatronics malfunctioning, and rides which no longer exist and have been largely forgotten. These are videos put together by extraordinary researchers; these people are really obsessed with theme parks, often Disney parks, and they’re able to present the history and development of these rides in such granular detail.

I’m not actually a massive theme park person. I’m from California and I went to Disneyland growing up, but it’s not part of my adult personality. When I became obsessed with these videos, I couldn’t really figure out why. I felt very drained during 2020, like we all did. I didn’t have a lot of creative inspiration in any area or topic that felt inherently literary, and I thought, rather than reaching for something highbrow, what if I just wrote about the thing I’m obsessed with at the moment? Because I could talk about it for hours: those videos, those animatronics and those rides. Whenever I found myself talking to people, in the back of my mind, I wanted to tell them about this weird dark ride from 1995 that got shut down immediately because it was so breathtakingly un-fun. And then I thought: What if I just put that into a novel?

Over time, this story emerged. A young woman who’s worked at a park that she adores, alongside her seemingly perfect boyfriend, finds herself tasked with shutting the park down after a grisly death took place. And as she does this, grieving the loss of this whimsical land that she called home, she starts to notice people who shouldn’t be there, and strange things happening underneath her feet.

My editor and my agent encouraged me to lean into genre fiction with this, to let things get weird, and not feel too much pressure to make it a perfectly polished thing. Having that permission was wonderful. It’s an ode to what theme parks and any kind of hyper-curated space can do to a person, because I love what they do to a person. Curation gets bad PR. I love psychological manipulation at an architectural level. I love feeling immersed and magical. As adults, we are not given the opportunity to do that enough: be immersed.

With that said, the book isn’t entirely about joyful immersion. I shouldn’t make it seem like a particularly happy novel; it’s not. It’s a really odd duck.

I’m suitably intrigued! The next game-like book you’ve selected for us is Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, can you tell us more about this one?

This is one of my favorite books ever. I’m tempted to give a lot of theory-based background to it – where it fits in the postmodern oeuvre and all that – but honestly it doesn’t even need to fit within a framework. Calvino was a secondary member of the Oulipo crowd and he was into the structuralist idea that constraint breeds creativity…and he was totally right!

This book is a travelogue of imagined cities that its protagonist, Marco Polo, has visited. If you read it straight through, it just seems like the author has come up with fifty-five really wacky and fantastical ideas for cities. Upon the second or third reading, you get the sense that it’s following a pattern, that the themes and the elements involved in these cities are following some kind of internal logic.

Indeed, that’s true. The book is hinged on this arrangement of themes like earth, air, thinness, and death. The order of each city follows a beautiful pattern, but you need to zoom out to see it. A little bit like Maze, you have choices about how you consume this work.

I’m such a fan of this idea that you need constraints to produce really excellent work. Boundlessness doesn’t often result in very interesting fiction. And you get the sense that in the ’60s and ’70s, European writers were allowing themselves to be multimodal, and were rejecting ideas of what fiction could and could not be. There wasn’t a lot of intellectual heft required to make that shift. As a result, some of these cities feel like they came out of those retro sci-fi magazines from the ’40s—they’re just wacky. Others are heartbreakingly poignant. There’s a city called Irene, and that city and its meaning play a role in my next novel. The description of that city is an emotional gut punch.

I return to this book all the time. I teach it when I’m doing lectures on hypertext fiction and interactive storytelling. It’s a great example of interactivity in the form of a ‘traditional’ analog novel. Calvino is using this hidden narrative system to interact with you across decades. It’s so fun.

Your last recommendation for us is the novel Piranesi, by Susanna Clark.

Everyone loves Piranesi. We started with Maze, which is most literally a puzzle book, and this is probably least literally a puzzle book. It’s just gorgeous.

It’s the story of a man who has no memories and no sense of time. He’s been named Piranesi by the only other occupant of the enormous palatial space that he finds himself in, which doesn’t really have the constraints of a physical place. There are no ceilings or floors that are consistent throughout; there’s an ocean at the bottom, there are clouds at the top, and it just contains room after room of statues and detritus. Piranesi comes across artifacts from the ocean below him, and from (what we come to learn is) the real world. People start to appear and the mystery unravels about who this man is and why he has no memory of how he arrived in this house. It’s immediately emotional, even just in the first descriptions of Piranesi’s environment.

This novel does that masterful, difficult thing of hooking you straight away, at first with nothing but pure intrigue, and then with this momentum of yearning and wonder and anguish all the way through. It’s a small, elegant mystery. There’s something extremely punk rock about releasing a tiny book. Piranesi is not technically a novella, but you could read it in a day or two. I just love that.

It’s been more than a year since I read it, and my heart swells every time I think of it.

That’s lovely. I can’t help noticing a thread of architecturalism between your selections. Is that a coincidence, an inherent part of puzzle books, or something else?

Puzzle books require design, and humans are bad at thinking of structure and design abstractly. So any author who thinks ‘I’m going to try to do a lot of structure or meta structure here’ almost always accidentally starts writing about literal architecture, which I think is very sweet.

I had never thought much about architecture until university, where one of my best friends was studying it, and she also happens to be a genius, so through her, I started thinking about those themes for the first time. Years ago, I worked part-time in operations at a semi-controversial architect’s studio, and I was definitely spying on a lot of people’s projects there, harvesting inspiration. There are aspects of architecture that I am drawn to, consciously as well as subconsciously. I don’t intend to gravitate towards it as a field, but I do, every time I write, without fail.

Interview by Uri Bram

October 3, 2023

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at [email protected]

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you've enjoyed this interview, please support us by .

Arianna Reiche

Arianna Reiche

Arianna Reiche is a Bay Area-born writer based in London. She is the author of the two-story chapbook Warden/Star, and At The End Of Every Day. She also researches and lectures in interactive narrative and metafiction at City, University of London.

Arianna Reiche

Arianna Reiche

Arianna Reiche is a Bay Area-born writer based in London. She is the author of the two-story chapbook Warden/Star, and At The End Of Every Day. She also researches and lectures in interactive narrative and metafiction at City, University of London.