The Best Metaphysical Thrillers

recommended by Greg Jackson

The Dimensions of a Cave: A Novel by Greg Jackson


The Dimensions of a Cave: A Novel
by Greg Jackson


Metaphysical literature calls into question the very nature of reality, says the acclaimed US novelist Greg Jackson: it dramatises "the liquid mysteries of thought, pattern, and form." Here, he highlights five 'metaphysical thrillers'—artfully written novels powered by intrigue, which explore or embody philosophical dilemmas.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

The Dimensions of a Cave: A Novel by Greg Jackson


The Dimensions of a Cave: A Novel
by Greg Jackson

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Let’s start by defining our terms. What is a metaphysical thriller? And why might we want to read one?

Well, I think the idea of the thriller is simpler—we can dispatch that quickly. For me, a thriller is any gripping story with a mystery at the core that we want resolved. And it must deliver some resolution that feels fitting to the mystery, although this doesn’t have to be resolution on the level of plot.

‘Metaphysical’ is trickier because it can mean different things to different people, and I won’t suggest that my definition is how everyone needs to see it. But for me the metaphysical is not predominantly fantasy, science fiction, or allegory. It takes place largely in a world we recognise, not an invented past or imagined future, but it gradually leads us to understand its events in more than a literal sense: to see them as manifestations of psychological experiences or philosophical dilemmas.

I think it’s helpful to consider what we have called ‘metaphysical’ at different times. In the seventeenth century there were the metaphysical poets, who wrote in extravagant analogies and metaphors that yoked diverse parts of experience together through farfetched comparisons. By so doing they performed an original synthesis of various sides of life—bodily and spiritual, earthly and transcendent. Then in the early twentieth century there was metaphysical painting, representational art that assembled realist imagery into non-realist, even ‘surreal’, scenes and tableaus. It often employed classical imagery, almost like emanations from a collective cultural memory, but it subjected this to something like the logic or pregnant symbolism of dreams.

“Literature can free us from the burden of living in a world made of lots and lots of small lies”

There is probably a gradient or continuum that moves from less to more metaphysical. I see a continuity at least between figurative language on the one hand, which we might associate with the metaphysical poets or the imagery of metaphysical painting, and figurative narrative or composition, which we might find in a writer like Kafka. A central concern of metaphysical literature is to reject viewing life as singular, meaningless, physical events. One experience is connected to all experience; one person is in some sense all or many people; a situation is about much more than itself and includes all the backgrounds of being that cause it to exist. In this sense, all literature is partly metaphysical in that it doesn’t propose that you should be interested in its sequential occurrences simply in themselves. But truly metaphysical literature goes further and dramatizes the encounter between mind and reality, the liquid mysteries of thought, pattern, and form. Things slightly above or prior to the physical world. Hence metaphysical.

There’s more to say, but for now I’ll just add that metaphysical novels tend to start out in the realm of reality and gradually drift into less literal terrain. The Invention of Morel, however, does the opposite. It starts in an unreal, seemingly metaphoric or allegorical place, then it gives an explanation—which may not be wholly satisfying, but is plausible—which locates these fantastical-seeming elements in a governing logic that makes sense within the book.

Yes, very interesting. In the literary context, I’ve seen discussion of the ‘metaphysical detective story’—something that seemed to me, at least initially, like a contradiction in terms. But in that instance what the name gestures towards is perhaps some kind of uncanny element, or maybe a resolution that subverts expectations or questions the very nature of mystery. Would you say this is a mark of postmodern literature?

It’s probably more common in postmodern literature, or at least twentieth-century literature. But its real birth, I think, traces to the psychoanalytic revolution, or what preceded the psychoanalytic revolution: the advent of the unconscious, with precursors in symbolism, Poe, and gothic literature. That’s not to say it was necessarily influenced by Freud, but I think it was a concomitant emergence. The critical idea of the ‘uncanny’ developed by Freud looks back to fairy tales and folk stories with supernatural elements and metaphors—doublings, doppelgängers, animism, magical thinking. That all seems related.

Stefan Zweig, who is on my list, was a friend of Freud, and there was mutual influence between the two. Another author I like and could have included is Arthur Schnitzler, who wrote in a psychologically metaphysical vein.

That’s all to say, I don’t know that you would necessarily call all metaphysical literature postmodern, although the case could be made. But what distinguishes postmodern writing, to my mind, is its specific interest in probing the essence of literature per se, the forms and conventions of novels and stories, what we mean by ‘literature’ and how it works. This can overlap with metaphysical literature, but it by no means exhausts it.


One last point. While metaphysical literature can have allegorical elements, and some of the books I’ve chosen do, it can’t for me be primarily allegory. I wouldn’t think of Animal Farm as metaphysical, for instance, since it points back to the world we actually live in too directly, as opposed to exploring those mental realms of repetition and pattern, memory and consciousness.

That makes sense. Let’s talk about your first book recommendation. This is The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares, published in 1940. It’s about a fugitive hiding out on a tropical island—but not all is as it seems. Can you tell us more?

A number of writers, including Borges and other luminaries of Latin American literature, have described this as a perfect novel. And there is something perfect in its plotting. As I mentioned before, it plays an amazing trick on you. It puts you in an odd situation in which you think you’re reading something like Kafka, where you shouldn’t expect any kind of systematic explanation. And then it miraculously delivers one, which makes a bizarre sense of everything that’s come before.

It’s hard to know how much to summarize a book like Morel. I don’t want to give away too much of the conceit. But in essence, the fugitive lands on the island, thinking it’s deserted. He’s fleeing political persecution, or in any event he’s trying to escape from forces he believes are pursuing him. On the island, however, he begins seeing these figures, whom he at first takes as real and then increasingly—since they seem unresponsive to his presence—as phantasmal. He falls in love with one of them. And the plot of the book is his uncovering over time what’s really going on.

The novel is said to be the basis of the film Last Year at Marienbad, which is fitting because Casares was apparently inspired to write it by his infatuation with the silent movie star Louise Brooks, who eventually transitioned into ‘talking pictures’ as well. On some level, Morel is a commentary on new technologies and their progression. Silent pictures were purely visual, then sound was added and they became more ‘real’. Part of what Casares seems to ask—if you accept the idea that as you incorporate more senses, more of life becomes amenable to representation—is if at some point the reproduction of reality turns into reality itself. If we know the world only through our senses, is there a point at which virtual reality becomes reality, if you see what I mean.

Yes, I do. And this is a question that you explore further in your own novel, The Dimensions of a Cave, which features an interrogation technique that produces a kind of virtual reality imposed upon those being investigated. Would you tell us more about that book, and how you approach the theme?

Yes, certain preoccupations in my book overlap with those in Casares’, which today seems very prescient about our current age. Morel was already talking about how, as reproductions capture reality with ever greater accuracy, there may cease to be anything to distinguish them from the reality they reproduce. This obviously bears on issues we’re grappling with right now relating to technological advances in simulation and AI. At the most extreme we are led to wonder, when does a human subject emerge from a machine, if it recapitulates enough of what we think it means to be human?

In The Dimensions of a Cave I was interested in asking two questions. First: What status, ultimately, do we give these things that come closer and closer to approximating reality? I place this in a long continuum that reaches way back to storytelling—to fiction—as the original ‘virtual’ reality. Second: How fully can you live in stories, in virtual realities, without becoming perilously untethered from the reality underneath them? At the same time, I think it’s important to recognise that we have always lived partly in virtual realities—in the stories and meanings that we invent to make sense of the world.

I took interrogation as a jumping-off point because it concretizes the idea of wanting to penetrate another person’s mind. There is something irreducibly or impenetrably private about one’s conscious experience, but we want to know what other people think and what they keep hidden. On the flip side, people live inside minds with their own blind spots and limitations. It’s quite difficult to know the reality that exists outside one’s head. So it’s a two-way street: The world is trying to know what’s inside us, and we’re trying to know what’s outside us. The key allegory—and an almost perfect metaphor for virtual reality—is Plato’s cave.

You mentioned Borges—I know you considered including the Borges’ story collection Labyrinths on your list. Maybe we can just touch on that book very quickly.

Yes. Borges was a very close friend of Casares. It seems that the metaphysical bent in their writing grew at least partly from their friendship and conversation. Borges’ story ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius‘—an excellent candidate for the ur-text of metaphysical literature—begins with the narrator (presumably Borges) having a discussion with Bioy (Casares) about the abominable nature of mirrors.

For me, Borges is the central figure in metaphysical literature. Some might argue for Kafka, but Kafka, to my mind, transcends the genre and moves beyond its preoccupation with the interplay between reality and that which eclipses reality. I’m not sure if people would accept that Borges wrote thrillers, but I consider his stories philosophical thrillers of a sort, or as close to a thriller as a thought experiment could get. Still, Borges didn’t write novels. So instead of including him, I let him hover in the background of Morel, which has the advantage of being less well known.

Great, yes. The second book on your list of metaphysical thrillers is If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino. It was first published in 1979. Can you talk us through the concept of the book, and why you’ve recommended it in this context?

The concept is amazing. When you first encounter it, you can’t believe someone pulled it off. Its skeleton, if I can call it that, comprises ten chapters—or chapter beginnings—from different novels. And in between these false starts you meet a reader, presented as ‘you’, who like the real you is reading each new chapter only for it to break off midstream. These interstitial chapters narrate the reader’s attempt to track down the rest of the novel only to discover, instead, the beginning chapter of a new novel. This keeps going on and gradually these fragments and the search for their missing counterparts becomes a novel unto itself. That’s the basic setup.

You can see its influence on later writers—like David Mitchell, whose Cloud Atlas is constructed from a set of nested stories. So, it’s an artistic and intellectual experiment. Would you also describe it as an enjoyable reading experience?

I mean, I find it quite enjoyable, although it does test your patience. I think we all sometimes get to a point in a book where we think, ‘I’m a little tired of this,’ or ‘I’m ready for something new.’ Calvino teases again and again the pleasure of opening a new book. He casts you as the ‘traveller’ of the title, repeatedly showing up in virgin territory, new terrain, and there’s real excitement in that. This is a metaphor for the reader, who is always a tourist in the territory of their reading, never an immigrant. But then you often do want to know what happens. You want resolution. So the book puts an interesting strain on you. It frustrates the inherent expectation of prosecuting the plot that has been set up for you. The plot becomes a metaplot, grounded in interstitial drama of trying to piece together into a coherent whole what is by nature fragmentary and incomplete.

You could see this as a metaphor for novel writing. By breaking apart its elements, the book draws attention to the puzzle-like nature of fiction. But it also, by fracturing the reading experience, puts pressure on the idea that a novel draws its meaning from the continuity of its plot. In true postmodern fashion, it refocuses on the timeless or conceptual aspects of what a novel is, as opposed to just, you know, a set of entailed events, one following the next. It puts forward a vision of one-novel-as-all-novels, showing how content can keep shifting while pattern and form endure.

Interesting. Our third metaphysical thriller is Chess Story by Stefan Zweig, a novella first published in 1941. Our readers might also know it under an alternative title, The Royal Game. It takes place during a long sea voyage.

Yes. It’s set on a ship travelling from New York to Buenos Aires. This is also a nested story, or a frame narrative—but if we focus on the central characters, that’s simpler. The reigning chess champion is aboard the ship, and over the course of the voyage some of the passengers become interested in challenging him to a game of chess. He’s reluctant, but eventually they get him to play. And of course he destroys them. He’s a chess champion after all.

But at some point an unexpected figure emerges: Dr. B. He starts giving the players advice, and it turns out that he’s a chess prodigy too, but unlike Czentovic, the champion, he’s a total unknown. I don’t want to say too much about the plot, but essentially Dr. B has discovered chess while being imprisoned and interrogated by the Gestapo. Chess becomes an escape from his predicament, and then later a kind of mania.

The novella parallels, in some ways, aspects of Zweig’s own life. It was one of the last things he wrote and it was published posthumously. Zweig left Europe in 1940 for New York, then emigrated to Brazil, where not long after he and his wife committed suicide. The main characters in Chess Story represent elements of Zweig’s own experience as well as events in Europe at that time. That’s the backdrop.

The figure of the mysterious stranger is an interesting plot device. It’s a common trope which, here, is employed very cleverly.

I’m interested in the blurry line here between fiction and author. And the use of a narrator who is in the middle of but not part of the action. He mostly just relates stories told to him. So there are all these different levels of reality and storytelling. It’s not clear-cut.

Both Czentovic and Dr. B have come to chess from places of profound deprivation. Czentovic has a largely empty mind and seems incapable of doing anything else. He is discovered and elevated by his fellow countryman out of chauvinistic pride. There’s something very simple about him, and they think they can ride his talent to nationalist glory. But ultimately they can’t control him. His monomaniacal fixation, the single-minded doggedness that allows him to succeed at chess, makes him ungovernable, refractory. I leave it to readers to decide what—who—he may represent.

“We have always lived partly in virtual realities—in the stories and meanings that we invent to make sense of the world”

Then you have Dr. B, who discovers an imaginative outlet in chess. He doesn’t have anyone to play with during his imprisonment, so he turns inward, divides his psyche, and plays both sides. This results in a kind of insanity—that of taking two sides, multiple perspectives, into himself. But this madness also amounts to a kind of sophistication: the power of perspective, imagination, nuance.

I think of Dr. B as a Zweig figure, who has fled Europe and feels the profound deprivation and loss of the culture he so prized, laid waste to by National Socialism. He discovers an escape in the imagination—Czentovic crucially lacks the imagination to play chess ‘blind’—and his power arises from this self-awareness and reflexivity, his ability to achieve a certain distance on himself. This is the temperament of the artist or thinking person, who insists on nuance and rejects the literally ‘black-and-white’ nature of politics and perhaps society at large. But this is his strength and his weakness. He is able to play both sides—but it drives him mad.

Thank you. The fourth book on your list of metaphysical thrillers is Colson Whitehead’s first novel, The Intuitionist, which came out in 1999. It’s a high-concept novel that also deals in unusual mental powers. Perhaps you could talk us through the conceit first.

This is probably the most ‘pure’ thriller on the list, and in some ways it’s also the most allegorical. It takes place in a version of mid-century New York City, perhaps a decade or two before the Civil Rights Era. This was a time of large-scale Black migration to northern cities. And in the imaginative world of the novel, one of the most important jobs you can have in such a city is that of elevator inspector.

The main character, Lila Mae Watson, is a Black female elevator inspector—the first. She is what’s called an ‘intuitionist’. There are two competing schools of elevator inspection: empiricism, which examines the elevator machinery . . . well, empirically, and intuitionism, which relies on an uncanny, quasi-spiritual sense of what’s going on inside an elevator. There’s a great deal of tension and mistrust between the two schools, and a backdrop of political machinations and corruption. For the first time it seems that an intuitionist might be elected Chair of the Elevator Guild and chief of elevator inspectors. Then an elevator Lila Mae has inspected crashes.

This sets the plot in motion. Was the crash an act of sabotage, meant to undermine the intuitionist candidate before the election? This possibility sends Lila Mae underground to try to discover whether she was set up. The book takes off from there in countless ingenious directions.

It seems to me that the metaphysical thriller takes two different avenues to unsettling the reader. You have your standard thriller approach, which is all about throwing the reader off the scent, surprising them by way of plotting. Then the metaphysical aspect might also bring in a sense that reality itself is untrustworthy or unpredictable.

This is a great point. Metaphysical fiction asks you to be comfortable in a world that won’t make perfect sense—not the way you expect reality in life or most fiction to make sense. But it does, I think, have to satisfy you on at least one of the two levels: either the mystery of the plot must resolve, or the mystery destabilizing everyday reality must be explained. Kafka may not be truly metaphysical in the sense I mean because he gives you neither satisfaction.

The Intuitionist is an interesting book because it tiptoes right along border between metaphysical and physical reality. There’s a deeper question that emerges by the end of the novel which I don’t want to spoil. But all along, the opposition between the empiricists and the intuitionists is slightly unstable. It operates as a metaphor for different ways of knowing or making sense of the world—through a hyperrational or mechanistic lens, or via a somewhat more intuitive, spiritual, or philosophical one. By the end, I think you may feel that neither one nor the other is exactly right, or can exist alone.

Can I say one more thing before we move on?

Please do.

There are many clever things about this book. It’s beautifully plotted and written. And at first it seems strange that Whitehead has taken elevators as his central theme. But you quickly realize how well they work on both a physical and metaphorical level. The development of the modern city occurred in large part thanks to elevators. You couldn’t really have buildings much above five or six stories before they came along. So this urban world Whitehead brings us into, and the well-known historical and racial drama behind it, is literally made possible by elevators.

But elevators then become an incredible metaphor for the idea of personal uplift, on the one hand, and racial uplift, on the other. And beyond that, for spiritual or religious transcendence—there’s talk of a ‘second elevation’—over and above the narrow bounds of the political moment. It’s perfect and expansive and extends out in manifold directions. The way it works on both literal and metaphorical levels at the same time is core to how metaphysical literature, as I think of it, operates.

Right. And you can see that double aspect in his other work. Like the way that The Underground Railroad takes the form of a literal railroad. What a brilliant mind.

Absolutely. When we’re kids, we do this naturally, because we haven’t fully segregated the literal, metaphorical, and sonic qualities of language in our minds. I, for instance—speaking of railroads—pictured a locomotive when I heard my parents use the word ‘expression,’ since the only related term I knew was ‘express train’. ‘Friday’ I associated with a frying pan. But we lose this awareness as we age, and it takes significant imagination for an adult to recover the ingenuous vision of a child.

Let’s tackle the final book on your list. It’s Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter. It was recently adapted into a film by Maggie Gyllenhall. You recommend it with the small proviso that it is less metaphysical than some of the other books on this list. Could you speak to that first?

Yes, it’s the least truly metaphysical. But I love Ferrante so much, and especially The Lost Daughter. And I do see its underlying meaning and structure as metaphysical. It’s organized around parallels and doublings, and somewhat like The Invention of Morel, it asks what relation the double has to the original, and when we are treating other people as real and when merely as projections of our internal dramas and dreams.

In The Lost Daughter these questions are largely psychological, but the pairings and repetitions are unsettling all the same. Mothers and daughters and dolls stand in for one another—doublings close enough to eerie but no so close as to be perfect, exact. These imperfect doppelgangers become a way of talking about children, which are part us, genetically, but also separate. And the doll, crucially, represents the simulacrum of a child or daughter: a stand-in that elicits the behaviour of one human being toward another absent any conviction that the other being is real and alive apart from its relationship to you.

In Morel the question is: When does the reproduction become the real thing, as it approaches reality with great fidelity. The Lost Daughter deals with reproduction in the sense of actual human reproduction. When does the ‘reproduced’ diverge and separate and become distinct unto itself. The drama and devastation of the book revolves around that question.

Right. The protagonist has an ambivalence towards motherhood.

Ferrante gets at something profoundly true about parenthood, that it is both a glorious and a torturous bond. One feels a natural resentment about the demands children place on you—a desire to run away from them and live unencumbered by responsibility—yet also a desire never to be separate from them.

Ferrante does an amazing job of rejecting both self-exaltation and self-abasement. She’s not writing to convince you to see her or to judge her in a particular way. She’s just unbelievably honest. And I think this unsettles people, who feel more comfortable suppressing these tensions and dilemmas and operating within the normal bounds of how we’ve been taught to talk about these things in public, affirming certain values or opinions even as we feel some inner conflict about them. I find this ruthless honestly, delivered without apology or self-righteousness, very freeing. It frees us from those dishonest stories we get roped into telling one another, these fictions people lay on top of one another and force each other to repeat and reaffirm. Literature can be a private document of inner honesty, and it can free us from the burden of living in a world made of lots and lots of small lies.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

October 19, 2023

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Greg Jackson

Greg Jackson

Greg Jackson is the author of the story collection Prodigals, for which he was named a National Book Foundation ‘5 Under 35’ honoree and received the Bard Fiction Prize. In 2017 he was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists. The Dimensions of a Cave is his first novel.

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Greg Jackson

Greg Jackson

Greg Jackson is the author of the story collection Prodigals, for which he was named a National Book Foundation ‘5 Under 35’ honoree and received the Bard Fiction Prize. In 2017 he was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists. The Dimensions of a Cave is his first novel.