When we think of universal themes, obsession certainly isn’t the first to come to mind, but Leslie Jamison—whose newest essay collection, Make It Scream, Make It Burn, out now from Little, Brown, takes the subject as its area of focus—makes a strong case for its ubiquitousness. “You could say that all literature is about obsession,” Jamison says, “because nothing gets written without the driving engine of an obsessive imagination or an obsessive curiosity.” When asked to recommend her favorite titles, “the idea that immediately came to mind would be choosing books about obsession.” Here, four very different books that share this universal theme.
El Túnel (The Tunnel), by Ernesto Sábato
Ernesto Sábato’s El Túnel is an Argentinean novel narrated by a painter who becomes obsessed with a woman who notices an important detail in one of his paintings that everyone else has ignored. It was the first novel I ever read in Spanish, during a summer I spent living in Bolivia, and I was grateful for the fact that so many words and ideas kept recurring—because I didn’t know that many words to begin with, but also because these repetitions shaped how I understood the way obsession can turn the mind from a vast landscape to a deep well.
The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, by Janet Malcolm
In The Silent Woman, Janet Malcolm analyzes our collective cultural obsession with a woman and her ghost, examining various biographers’ attempts to write about the poet Sylvia Plath, whose suicide cast a dark, lustrous gleam over her work and life. In addition to being an astute critical dissection of the genre of biography, Malcolm’s book is an account of how people try to make sense of death by turning lives into myths.
The Vegetarian, by Han Kang
This novel tracks the unspooling, almost hallucinogenic consequences of a woman’s decision to stop eating meat. Yeong-hye’s choice is an act of self-assertion—her own husband calls her “completely unremarkable” and “always so submissive”—that ends up carrying her and her husband into a psychic darkness they couldn’t have imagined, though perhaps some version of it had been there all along.
I Love Dick, by Chris Kraus
Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick is a cult-classic work of “autofiction” that narrates a 39-year-old filmmaker’s deepening obsession with a cultural critic named Dick. “How long can anyone continue analyzing a single evening and a 3-minute call?” she wonders. The beauty of this novel is how its anti-heroine turns a crush into an intellectual project, “marching boldly into self-abasement,” in the words of poet Eileen Myles. Or as Chris frames it: “If I could love [him] consciously, take an experience that was so completely female and subject it to an abstract analytical system, then perhaps I had a chance of understanding something and could go on living.”