10 Books Portraying a Search for Truth

Babak Lakghomi, author of "South," recommends stories that play with form to portray the difficulty of accessing reality

Lamp shining upon a desk in the darkness
Photo by 𝓴𝓘𝓡𝓚 𝕝𝔸𝕀 on Unsplash

Searching for truth, whether at personal level or on a larger scale, has been the subject of many different narratives. I started writing my novel South in 2018 when I was thinking about truth, its relationship to history, and the possibility of accessing reality amid the excess of misinformation and the erasure of historical facts. 

The narrator of South is a freelance journalist who is hired for a mission to investigate the labor strikes on an offshore oil rig. Soon after his arrival on the rig, he is pulled into a labyrinth of conspiracies and lies that he is not able to decipher. The book interweaves the narrator’s search for his past and his father with the search for a bigger truth. Censorship and manipulation—by the oil company, by the state—complicate his quest. I was interested in a form and narrative that would mirror the challenges in the narrator’s search for truth. To this effect, the novel integrates other texts: letters and emails, notes from the narrator and his father’s notebooks, excerpts from a (non-existent) religious book (The Book of the Winds). 

Issues such as resistance, memory, history, and the possibilities and limitations of language are frequently explored in books whose focus is our relationship to truth. In some of these books, the form of the book becomes a means of reflecting the search and the difficulty of accessing reality.

The Taiga Syndrome by Cristina Rivera Garza, translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana

The Taiga Syndrome is a short novel written in poetic prose and brief chapters. The female narrator of the novel is a former detective; she is hired to find the client’s wife who has run away with her new lover. The detective and her translator follow the lovers’ path through the Taiga that generates a sense of melancholy and malaise. Things become more surreal when the detective and her translator go deeper into the Taiga in their search. The novel successfully blends suspense with elements of fairy tale; the indirect narration and the added layer of translation between the locals and the detective produce a sense of displacement that heightens the mystery. The novel not only reflects on the difficulty of seeking truth but on the limitations of communication and language itself.

Samedi the Deafness by Jesse Ball

Jesse Ball’s first novel is a mystery thriller written with minimal prose and with white space between its concise sections. One day, the novel’s protagonist, James Sim, finds a dying (murdered) man during his walk at the park who tells him about a conspiracy, including someone called Samedi, which leads him into a self-assigned mission to find Samedi. Among other things, the novel includes an institution called a verisylum for the treatment of chronic liars. In this puzzle-like and enigmatic novel, we share the experience of Sim in his search for truth and his desire to make sense of the proliferating conspiracies around him. 

Jane: A Murder by Maggie Nelson

Maggie Nelson’s investigation of the life and officially unsolved murder of her aunt Jane. The book combines poems, account of dreams, excerpts of media accounts and Jane’s journals, among other texts. Through its fragmented and innovative form, the book not only reflects the difficulty of resolution of the murder mystery, but the unknowable aspects of someone else’s life.  

The Absent City by Ricardo Piglia

This 1992 novel by Argentinian avant-garde master is part detective thriller, part science fiction, but deep down an investigation of truth and history under a totalitarian regime where the accounts of the past monstrosities are erased by the government. Elena, the novel’s heroine, is a machine that is named after the writer Macedonio Fernandez’s wife; she is made after the wife’s death, when the writer tries to save her memories through the creation of this machine. The police are after Elena—she keeps sharing her memories, including the history of atrocities and crimes against humanity—while Junior, a reporter for a Buenos Aires newspaper, is also searching for her. The experience of reading the novel feels like opening a door to only find other doors, each door leading to new and unsolved stories. 

Missing Person by Patrick Modiano

The winner of the Prix Goncourt, Missing Person is the story of an amnesiac detective, Guy Roland, who starts a search for his identity and his past after his boss shuts down the detective agency he has been working at for the last eight years. Following elements of a typical detective thriller, the novel is at once an investigation of the nature of self, and a reflection on collective erasure and amnesia in the aftermath of the French occupation. 

Trans(re)Lating House One by Poupeh Missaghi

Missaghi’s hybrid novel interweaves two different narratives: the narrator’s search for disappearing statues in Tehran and an effort for documentation of mysterious political deaths in the wake of the Iranian 2009 post-election protests. Blending fact and fiction, theory, and dreams, the novel is at once a map of a city as well as a reflection on the history, art making, loss, and collective trauma. 

Last Days by Brian Evenson

Last Days combines detective and horror genres; the story homes in on a religious mutilation cult. Kline is an amputee, ex-detective who is kidnapped by two members of the mutilation cult in order to identify the murderer of their former leader. Kline has to find his way to freedom through the members of the cult and other rival sects, and navigate their web of lies and misinformation. Narrated in Evenson’s stark and vivid prose, the novel is filled with absurd and memorable passages and dialogue. 

Fra Keeler by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi

The narrator of this short novel purchases the house of Fra Keeler and becomes obsessed with the investigation of the former owner’s death. The investigation soon turns inward, getting stranger, as the book reveals the unraveling mind of the unreliable narrator. A novel about reality, perception, and insanity.

Cosmos by Witold Gombrowicz

A metaphysical detective thriller about the daily life of two young men, Witold and Fuks, who go to stay with an eccentric family and their maid at a boarding house in the country in search of peace and quiet. Unusual things and symbols appear—like a sparrow hanging from a tree with a string as well as arrow marks on the wall—that set Witold on a comic quest while the atmosphere of the boarding house is filled with dread and sexual tension. The strange accumulation of associations and symbols, however, does not cohere into a resolved plot, challenging the effort to simplify reality and make order out of the chaos in which the characters exist.

The Erasers by Alain Robbe-Grillet

The debut novel by “Nouveau Roman” novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet may be his most plot-driven novel. The story concerns eight murders that have occurred in various parts of the country. With the ninth murder, police agent Wallas is tasked to investigate the deaths. In this labyrinthine novel, carrying some of the trademarks of Robbe-Grillet’s later work, the detective genre elements are applied to investigate and challenge the limits of reality and certainty. 

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