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If you were losing your mind, how would you know? What if instead it were the world that was losing its mind — flouting the usual statutes re: time and space? At what point would you look into a darkened window and, failing to see your reflection, say, “It’s not me, it’s you”? Maybe you’d say nothing at all, given that the customary divisions between me and you, mind and matter, had gone null and void, were no longer relevant, had most definitively ceased to apply. In this case the most pressing problem would seem to be not sanity but location — how to find your place in a new mental geography. Such is the conundrum raised in Daniel Kehlmann’s novel, YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT (Pantheon, $18), translated from the German by Ross Benjamin, when the narrator, his wife, Susanna, and their four-year-old daughter, Esther, take up residence in a mountaintop getaway rented from a mysterious landlord through Airbnb. One of the mordant jokes of this clever, exquisitely terrifying slip of a book: On the internet, nobody knows you’re a ghost.

Untitled photograph from the series Radici © Fabrizio Albertini

The narrator is a screenwriter on deadline, and You Should Have Left unfolds as a diary that blends notes for Besties 2, the script he owes the studio, with events from daily life.

Meanwhile Esther was telling us about a friend from preschool who is named either Lisi or Ilse or Else and either took a toy away from her or gave her one, at which point the teachers did either nothing at all or just the right thing, or something wrong; little kids are not good storytellers. But Susanna and I exclaimed That’s great! and Incredible! and How about that! and the relief when she stopped talking brought us closer together.

The unraveling begins in the dark. Strange intrusions erupt in the diary — the words “Get away” in the middle of a paragraph. The narrator suffers disturbing dreams. A picture appears where none was before. A shopkeeper straight from central casting asks, “Anything happen yet?” Unsettled, the family is about to hit the highway when the narrator looks at Susanna’s phone and discovers that she’s having an affair. A fight ensues and she takes off in the car. Dad and daughter try to walk downhill but the path leads them back to the front door; they’re trapped in the force field of a parallel universe. The flatness of the tone is what scared me the most:

A short while ago there was a man in the room. He didn’t look dangerous, more tired. . . . I think he resembled the woman with the narrowed eyes, but I couldn’t really tell, because he wasn’t standing on the floor but on the ceiling, and he was looking down at me as if he wanted to ask for help. But he was here only briefly, and I’m so exhausted I might also have imagined him.

Like Kehlmann’s other novels, You Should Have Left is smart and brisk. He makes entertainment out of metaphysics and is open to more than the occasional haunting: casual talk of ghosts, comic flights of lunacy, excursions into hypnosis, crises of faith. His characters bring an empirical scrutiny to the otherworldly. In his first novel, Measuring the World, Alexander von Humboldt offers a surveyor’s adage: “Whenever things were frightening, it was a good idea to measure them.” The narrator of You Should Have Left takes this advice literally, by sketching a right triangle with a ruler. But no matter what he does, the angles add up to 172, and a rectangle fares no better. There’s something wrong with the drawings. They make his eyes go fuzzy. By the end, he understands. He’s gone over to another side, or inside; there are more dimensions there, it’s hard to explain. Maybe it’s all an elaborate metaphor for that most quotidian reality, a disintegrating marriage — the angles of one man’s life collapsing as the house caves in.

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