There’s a whole category of books that can be described as “no plot, just vibes.” And then there are books that are “all plot, weird vibes.” If you’re looking for a book that will really shake you out of your current state of mind, a fever dream book that employs dream logic, surreal imagery, distorted spacetime, or stream-of-consciousness writing might do the trick.
What does it mean for a book to read like a fever dream? At the very least, it needs to be weird, with some characters, plot points, or settings that would never occur in real life. And the writing will probably put you on edge with feelings of anxiety or confusion. These are definitely the books you will remember for the mood they put you in while reading more than for the recollection of point-by-point plot details.
You might think actual fever dreams are pretty horrible! Why would I want to recreate those feelings? Maybe it’s like reading a horror novel. It’s fun when you know you are safe. And unlike a real fever dream, you can tap out if you need a break from the chaos. So here I will do my best to succinctly capture some pretty wild books in the following little blurbs.
Sterling Karat Gold by Isabel Waidner
Sterling Beckenbauer is attacked then arrested unfairly. And then, they hold a trial of their own to try to exonerate themselves. And I know what you’re thinking. It’s like an update of Kafka’s The Trial, right? I don’t recall time-traveling spaceships in The Trial, though. Like many fever dream books, this book uses its exaggerated storytelling to share people’s very real plights, in this case, the violence exacted upon queer and non-conforming people. And although that is a very serious topic, this book is also a very fun and funny ride.
All’s Well by Mona Awad
This follow-up to the author’s wildly popular Bunny is another weird and dark book with an academic setting. In All’s Well, Miranda is a college theater professor whose chronic pain has led to a dependence on painkillers. She wants to stage Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, but her students really want to do Macbeth. When she’s at a personal low, she meets some people who promise to turn her life around. And things get really strange from there.
Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente
If the idea of reading about a sexually-transmitted city doesn’t instantly lure you in, well, you and I are very different readers. If you’ve read any of this author’s other works, like Deathless or Space Opera, you’ll know she has a fairly baroque writing style. This book follows four characters who access the fantasy city of Palimpsest in their dreams after having sex with a stranger. Their desire to visit Palimpsest in their waking lives drives this erotic and wondrous book.
The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayat, translated by Naveed Noori
If you haven’t read this book, one of the classics of modern Iranian literature, get into it! First published in 1936, this novel follows an unnamed narrator in despair after losing a lover. In his morbid state, he starts talking to a shadow on the wall that looks like an owl. His confessions are macabre and surreal, a descent into madness. But the story repeats in a second part, told more straightforwardly but sometimes contradicting the first part. The reader is left to sort out the truth.
The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington
Leonora Carrington is best known for her surrealist painting, so imagine those talents applied to this book. It follows a very lovable 92-year-old woman named Marian, who acquires the titular assistive device and can then hear her family’s plans to put her in a nursing home. That doesn’t sound too weird until you learn about the home, which is essentially a front for a cult. And I don’t want to spoil the details, but there’s really wild stuff happening there. FYI, this book was written in the 1970s and definitely has some dicey stuff with race and gender, so it’s best to know that going in.
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami
Several of Murakami’s books could probably make it onto this list, but I picked this one for its kitchen-sink quality that makes it especially feverish. The story is split between two parallel stories, one the hardboiled wonderland and the other the end of the world, naturally. The first narrative follows a human data processor on a quest for a scientist who works in the Tokyo sewer. The other story follows a person in an isolated town learning to read dreams from unicorn skulls. And it wouldn’t be a real fever dream of a novel if these two disparate worlds didn’t come together in a spectacular splatter painting of a novel.
The Hike by Drew Magary
This author has range! Between writing the beloved Hater’s Guides to the Williams-Sonoma Catalog and a stirring oral history of his own traumatic brain injury (The Night The Lights Went Out), he found time to write a very strange novel indeed. The premise is quite straightforward: Ben is on a business trip and decides to take a short hike before dinner. But the things he encounters on that hike are anything but straightforward. It’s weird and truly surprising and even moving, a rare feat in a fever dream book.
The Antelope Wife by Louise Erdrich
This book is fabulism in a way that is both very magical and very real. It intertwines generational storytelling with Ojibwe mythology, using multiple narrators, including a dog. The story is fragmented and not told in chronological order, but it follows two families over time and how a mysterious woman changes them. If you’ve read some of Louise Erdrich’s more recent books like The Night Watchman or The Sentence, you’ll enjoy digging into her backlist with this title.
Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann
Racing thoughts are definitely a part of my nighttime routine that can slip right into a nightmare. This book, told entirely in one long stream-of-consciousness sentence, is hypnotic and worth the effort. The book catalogs the running thoughts of one Ohio woman whose mind bops from her family to environmental disaster and everywhere else thoughts can go in one thousand (yes, 1,000) pages. But unlike my nighttime racing thoughts, this book does make a point and come to a conclusion!
Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos, translated by Rosalind Harvey
Could this list be complete without an homage to the classic children’s fever dream that is Alice in Wonderland? Meet Tochtli, a boy who wants a pygmy hippopotamus. Get in line, kid; who doesn’t want a house hippo? But Tochtli’s father is a drug lord. So when he asks if he can travel from Mexico to Liberia in order to acquire his desired pet, he gets the OK. It’s an outlandish tale told through a child’s eyes, but there’s also a layer of sharp commentary on contemporary Mexico.
A fever dream is a particular flavor of weird, but maybe you’re looking for a real smorgasbord. Might I suggest some f*cked-up books or our big list of generally strange books. Because who needs normal anyway?