7 Novels About Questionable Geniuses and False Saviors

Marta Balcewicz, author of "Big Shadow," recommends stories about megalomaniacs who will do anything to be worshipped

Dorothy and her motley crew finally meet The Wizard of Oz in Emerald City. Photos via Wikimedia Common Creatives.

In the climactic moment of the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, Toto the terrier moves aside the Technicolor-green curtain to reveal that the Wizard is a mere mortal, pulling and twisting at levers to create the illusion of a great, smoke-puffing god. Even before the big reveal, though, Dorothy and her friends are already disappointed with the Wizard. He had promised he’d get Dorothy back home, to Kansas, if she liquified the Wicked Witch of the West, and now he’s dawdling—yeah, maybe tomorrow, come back later, he says. Dorothy calls him out on his BS: “If you were really great and powerful,” she says, “you’d keep your promises.”

As a kid, I remember registering that the characterization of the exposed Wizard was complicated by him proceeding to explain his story, why he does what he does, why he’s a fraud. It was not the swift and simple unmasking of a villain as observed in Scooby-Doo—another bit of pop culture that young-me devoured. The story of the genius-villain in Oz was more adult-like because it gave him a motive, and was made complicated by the reasons he provided for what on its face was despicable behavior. I could see his point: that his lies kept a whole population happy. It involved ethics and all the stuff that seemed intriguing and like an introduction to thinking about others and the world in an exciting—because nuanced—way.

In my novel Big Shadow, a young and isolated woman starts paying visits to a man she views as an “established and professional artist,” at his East Village apartment. The narrator convinces herself that she stands a chance at becoming part of his world, that they’re equals. Maurice is a poet, a fixture of the former punk scene that flowered in New York in the mid-1970s. Now nearing 50, this villain-genius is not as grand and flame-throwing as the Wizard. He is not even overtly villainous, and definitely not a genius (though the descriptor is bandied about). As with Oz, it’s complicated. Judy, our inexperienced narrator, chooses to see the better parts of Maurice and their relationship.

What if Dorothy wanted to return to Kansas so badly, she drew the green curtain shut again, pushed what Toto had shown her out of her mind, and continued to wait at the foot of the floating green head of the Wizard until he delivered on his promise? “Since you’re really great and powerful, you’ll keep your promises” is a line of thought she could’ve comforted herself with. But I think an attendant thought would inevitably follow: how long can one cruise in a mode of self-deception, and is the cost of doing so worth the tenuous reward?

This reading list features a crew of questionable geniuses, part saviors, part villains, all due for exposure. The common thread is that they keep the wool over someone else’s eyes, and the smoke and mirrors of their genius-status has the power to greatly affect others. Sometimes that someone is our protagonist, sometimes that someone is us, the readers.

The Weak Spot by Lucie Elven

The Weak Spot follows a woman who arrives at a small, isolated town to start an apprenticeship at a pharmacy. From her first moments in the peculiar, fable-like locale, it becomes evident that her employer, the pharmacist August Malone, is a revered and elevated local god. The pharmacy employees and the whole town buzz around Malone. Townspeople seek his counsel; he has a Delphic oracle quality, it appears, and people spill their beans to him “as if at confession.” And yet when he runs for mayor, armed with the secrets of his constituents, a different side of him becomes apparent to the narrator. The Weak Spot is a portrait of power and manipulation rendered in a style so dreamy and suffused in moodiness that the story’s sinister elements might elude you on a first read, as if you’ve fallen victim to the soothing powers of that trickster genius yourself.

The Polyglot Lovers by Lina Wolff

Wolff’s novel has a three-part, three-narrator structure with a central object that links the lives of the disparate narrators: the destruction of the sole existing copy of a literary genius’s manuscript. The first narrator is a woman who goes on a date with a literary critic. At the end of their rendezvous, she burns said manuscript, which the critic had in his possession for the purposes of writing a review. “Genius” is not a term I’ve imported into the plot. Max Lamas, the author of the lost manuscript, is unabashedly referred to as the genius of his age. The satirical notes are discernable. The novel brings up Michel Houellebecq in various contexts, sometimes as a competitor to Max, though Max is obsessed with the controversial French writer as well. The second narrator is Max himself, which grants us closer, and more horrific, insight into who he is. The final narrator is the granddaughter of one of Max’s lovers. She offers yet another lens through which to view—and judge—the super-revered man at the center of it all: Max, or is it Houellebecq, or perhaps it’s more generally the Male Genius Literary Writer who has held an annoyingly long tenure in the industry in which Wolff makes her art.

Indelicacy by Amina Cain

Indelicacy reads like a dark yet hopeful fable. From the start we get the sense that we are untethered to place or time; there’s no need for those sorts of details. The narrator is a cleaning woman at an art gallery, leading an austere life. With the beautifully uncomplicated unfolding of a fairy tale or magic illusion, she meets a man at the gallery and is suddenly married, Cinderella-like, coming to live at her new husband’s grand homestead, complete with a maid and a seeming freedom born from financial security. Yet very quickly we question this savior. Who is this prince who can whisk a poor woman into a new life from one page to the next? Tension arises from growing, subtle disappointments, the biggest being the narrator’s feelings that she is hindered from pursuing her dream of writing. The prince-husband is perhaps more of a Bluebeard—the anti-savior-supreme. Things in the castle are not as they seem, and for a long time the narrator doesn’t fully understand the extent of what is going on within the walls she inhabits. Indelicacy is a striking meditation on dreams, life’s callings, art, independence, and freedom. It is a novel uniquely conceived and captured. 

Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patrick Cottrell

But what if it is the first-person narrator herself who is convinced of her genius-status, in full-on megalomaniacal—and wholly unreliable—glory? In Cottrell’s darkly humorous, unexpectedly devastating novel, Helen, our narrator leaves New York City to visit her midwestern hometown to attend her brother’s funeral, announced suddenly after he takes his own life. Helen’s mind is peculiar—sometimes veering on absurd, her adoptive parents’ behavior so extreme and disturbing, a lot of the fun of the novel is trying to get a grip on reality, and better yet: letting go of that impulse and committing fully to Helen’s lens. As is often the case with people who have a weak grasp of the world, a lot of Helen’s attention is devoted to presenting her picture of herself to us, to control the image of herself, and this is tied to her occupation as a counsellor of troubled youth. Helen’s idea of her success as a shaper of young minds makes up some of the more amusing and disturbing moments in the novel. The dramatic irony hits peak-levels as Helen—who in her own mind is a savior to her students, the type of genius-pedagogue that has films made about them à la Dead Poets Society—recounts moments at work, in the classroom, where the reader can see the horrifying truth of the situation. And witnessing this allows the reader to meditate further on what the narrator’s disconnect from truth means in regard to other aspects of her life and upbringing. 

The Shame by Makenna Goodman

The Shame follows Alma, a woman who decides to leave her family and home in Vermont and pursue a barely planned, tenuous new life in Brooklyn. The magnetic mountain to which the narrator is drawn is Celeste, whose life Alma has glimpsed through her social media posts (the platform is not named, though the posts have an Instagram-like feel). A significant part of the novel is focused on Alma’s growing immersion in Celeste’s life in her picture-perfect apartment—or rather “life” in quotation marks, as it is of course merely the life Celeste presents through the funhouse mirror that is social media. In the narrator’s mind, the woman is elevated to an ideal, a god, a new religion. Celeste’s mythology is sufficiently believable that Alma is able to leave behind her young children just to be with her—or, more likely, to be like her. The drive to New York, which encompasses the “present moment” of the novel, and the narrator’s time in the city, as she seeks to find and finally meet her savior, is full of tension. What will the meeting result in? What can a meeting with an ideal result in? Is Celeste a worthwhile savior? The novel leaves us asking why we idealize others when all signs point to there being reasons to suspect our impulse—what this says about us and our own condition.

My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye 

My Heart Hemmed In is a mystery—not the genre of mystery, but a story seemingly oblivious to the need to explain anything to its reader. The idea that this can’t go on is propulsive, and conducive to paranoia. The unknowns become suffocating in the most pleasant of ways, and we read on for the hope of release, some air to be let in. The novel follows a woman living in Bordeaux who attempts to understand why others have suddenly come to despise her and her husband. The antagonism is so severe that the couple is effectively ostracized. In the opening page, the husband has been stabbed; he may be dying. One of the many unexplained phenomena is the presence of a neighbor, Richard Noget, who unilaterally moves into the couple’s apartment to act as a nurse. His aggressive presence, marked by absurd actions, adds another level of oppression for the narrator: she cannot understand it. And what truly fuels her (and so, our) flame is that while she’s convinced Noget is sinister, he is a famous and revered figure in France. Noget’s status as beloved is a repeating, painful blow, as the narrator’s whole consciousness has turned to the question of why she is despised and unloved. While Noget is only one of the few terrifying elements that challenge the notion of realism in this novel, he is a central symbol that haunts the narrator until the very final scenes. 

Acting Class by Nick Drnaso

In Drnaso’s graphic novel, a motley crew of outsiders ridden by all shades of past and present problems attend an acting class taught at a community center by the enigmatic John Smith. Smith is no Gene Cousineau from HBO’s Barry. His ambiguously flat yet demanding pedagogical approach lends the story a tense, uncomfortable tone, and he is ultimately unlikeable, with a slight whiff of cult leader. Acting in Smith’s acting class is not a route to scoring a part in a film or TV show. It instead entails a role-playing that leads to accessing memories and fantasies. As students enter imagined (or procured) scenarios, the result is a blurring of the boundaries between real and not-real. Smith’s students quickly come to depend on his versions of reality, though it is unclear whether healthy progress is being made and whether the students are benefitting from the so-called acting lessons. The story culminates in a trip to the teacher’s isolated home and leaves a dangling question of whether this group should have placed so much of their inner lives in the hands of a reticent guru.

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