For a novelist at the start of their career, nailing the debut is crucial, yet first novels with ambition, vision, and originality are famously hard to come by. But every so often, a debut novel breaks the mold. Here are three new debuts—an exploration of power and technology, an odyssey through an imagined metropolis, and a clever murder mystery—announcing the arrival of three fiction writers to watch.

The Dimensions of a Cave

Greg Jackson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30 (480p) ISBN 978-0-374-29849-4
Jackson’s inspired debut novel (after the collection Prodigals) recasts Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Plato’s allegory of the cave for the information age. After journalist Quentin Jones’s investigative piece about the U.S. government’s virtual reality interrogation program is spiked by his editor, he gets wind of a more ambitious iteration in which pacified citizens would play out their lives in “bespoke realities.” The idea of this technology, he tells his group of reporter buddies in a frame narrative that mirrors Conrad’s novella, has radically altered his perception of their profession and the nature of reality. Never sure whether he is following leads or being led into a trap, Quentin tracks down the program’s architects and learns that Bruce, one of their mentees, has entered, and perhaps lost himself in, this experimental simulation. The book’s characters, including government bureaucrats, warlords, and bohemian artists, tend to expound at length, their voices nearly indistinguishable but their tales florid and spellbinding—Bruce, the novel’s Kurtz, delivers a “horrific litany” of ancient torture techniques and modern-day genocides. Within the serpentine plot of journalistic tradecraft and government skullduggery, epigrammatic reflections abound: “Maybe consciousness is our way of condensing existence into a shareable form,” offers a computer scientist. It adds up to a timely and clear-eyed interrogation of the fictions that shield people from society’s blinding truths. Agent: Georges Borchardt, Georges Borchardt Inc. (Oct.)

Pay As You Go

Eskor David Johnson. McSweeney’s, $29 (500p) ISBN 978-1-952119-74-3
Johnson’s unbridled debut runs in circles of accelerating grandiosity and lunacy. Slide has been in the big city of Polis for two months and feels marooned in the chaos. He’s low man on the totem pole at the barber shop where he works and is constantly at odds with his quirky roommates, Eustace and Calumet. Abundant oddballs float through his orbit, like the florid novelist Sir Artem Borand and Madame Lupont, the maternal manager at Calumet’s previous place of employment. Polis, with its subway, rats, and mean streets, resembles New York or Chicago, but is purposely off-center enough to accommodate the outrageous characters that Slide encounters when he moves out of his awkward living situation. Just as Polis is an unknown city, Johnson makes Slide a blank slate with no documented past. A parade of larger-than-life characters traipse through his life, and he becomes a soldier of sorts, a gangster, and eventually a celebrity under the tutelage of the wise seductress Monica Iñes. It’s a familiar template, and Johnson meets its challenges with panache and imagination. Piquant titles, like “That Lady Is Swallowing a Sword,” are dropped intermittently into Slide’s odyssey, underscoring its irony and reinforcing its episodic nature. This big, buoyant adventure feels both ebulliently modern and transparently classical. Agent: Andrea Somberg, Harvey Klinger. (Oct.)

West Heart Kill

Dann McDorman. Knopf, $28 (288p) ISBN 978-0-593-53757-2
McDorman’s wily debut breaks the fourth wall immediately, in a sign of the authorial shenanigans to come: “This murder mystery, like all murder mysteries, begins with the evocation of what the reader understands to be its atmosphere,” goes the opening line. From there, McDorman introduces private detective Adam McAnnis, who’s finagled an invitation to a weekend-long bicentennial celebration at the West Heart hunting club in Upstate New York, where his old college friend’s family owns a cabin. After McDorman establishes his large cast (in part through a half-redacted list of dramatis personae), the plot speeds up with a suspicious drowning and the accidental shooting of West Heart president John Garmond. Looking to get to the bottom of both deaths, McAnnis interviews his fellow lodgers one by one. As the story unfolds, the omniscient narrator intrudes to offer up tangents on subjects including murder mystery genre rules (“The key is a sense of fair play—a reader must not feel cheated”) and Agatha Christie’s famous 1926 disappearance. While these peregrinations may not appeal to mystery fans who prefer a more direct route from crime to solution, McDorman ensures they never come at the expense of satisfying twists or shocks. For readers willing to try something a little different, this is quite the diversion. Agent: David Black, David Black Literary. (Oct.)