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January 7, 2019

Philosophical novels use fictional stories to explore thought-provoking and often disturbing questions about consciousness, morality, and the human condition. The following collection of philosophical novels take a gallows humor approach to these heavy issues. Ranging from autobiographical to off-the-wall, they offer stories that will make you laugh, wince, and think all at the same time.

The Castle by Franz Kafka
Kafka never finished this dark and surreal novel, and it wasn’t published until two years after his death. It depicts a man identified only as K., who arrives in a remote village and attempts to gain access to the mysterious, dictatorial authorities governed by a nearby castle. It was adapted into several films, most recently the 2015 movie K set in Mongolia.

The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut
In Vonnegut’s second novel, the wealthiest and most corrupt man on Earth is summoned on an interplanetary journey that explores issues of free will and omniscience and culminates in a prophetic vision about the purpose of human life. Author Douglas Adams cited The Sirens of Titan to influence his novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, calling it “an absolute tour de force.”

Watt by Samuel Beckett
This darkly comedic novel follows a hyper-logical Irish manservant's misadventures and his master in a branching and nonlinear narrative. Beckett wrote most of it while on the run in southern France during World War II, and, along with his other print and stage works, it helped earn him the 1969 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Death on the Installment Plan by Louis-Ferdinand Céline
Céline’s sequel to Journey to the End of Night provides a disjointed fictional account of the author’s childhood in Parisian slums and his sexual escapades, illnesses, and struggles to make a living. The predecessor of modern black comedy explores the absurdity, meaning, sordidness, and beauty of human life.

Jacques the Fatalist by Denis Diderot
During their journey to an unnamed destination, a valet tells his master the story of his loves, which is frequently interrupted by introducing other characters and various comedic mishaps. Two centuries after it was written, Diderot’s novel was dramatized by famed author Milan Kundera.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
This black comedy about the devil paying a visit to atheistic Moscow, where an author working on a novel about Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate has been confined to a psychiatric hospital, was written during Stalin’s regime and could not be published until after Bulgakov’s death. It has inspired numerous films, television series, theatrical productions, and songs, including the Rolling Stones, hit “Sympathy for the Devil.”

After Many a Summer Dies the Swan by Aldous Huxley
Although not as famous as his classic Brave New World, this satire about humanity’s desire to live forever won Huxley the 1939 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction, one of the oldest British awards for English-language fiction. It tells the story of a Hollywood millionaire who fears death and his personal physician working on a theory of longevity.

Greg Hickey is the author of the accessible, philosophical, grown-up choose-your-own-adventure novel The Friar’s Lantern and the curator of The 105 Best Philosophical Novels.

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