When I first started writing I wanted to do with prose what Charlie Kaufman did with film. I wanted to channel my inner absurdist and use all those hours spent watching Jam, Snuffbox, and The Mighty Boosh. I wanted to do Kafka for the modern age. I wanted to do weird in a new way. I wanted to find unfettered and untrodden ground and tell untold stories.
I got myself into a good swing with it, too. It felt natural. I wrote about a community of people living in a man’s beard, about a man who needs money from his wife to turn into a dog, a guy who finds a portal to a happier dimension in the bottom of his cup of tea, a boy stuck to a wall, a woman with a basement full of jobs. I made short films about a wife who turns into a chair, a dad who moves into the doghouse in the garden, a man who loses his soul at the local bus stop. With each story I felt like I was carving away at some abstract block of stone, finding some unique version of myself waiting within. I explored this side of my fiction up to the point where I felt I couldn’t get much more out with it.
I’d kicked the ball so far up the field but didn’t know where to pass it, or even if I was heading in the right direction, or on the right field. I looked around and I couldn’t see a single guy wearing the same coloured shirt as me.
I couldn’t find my team.
Also, I was beginning retread the same ground and so it was time to explore new horizons. Which is when I started to lean more heavily into writing horror, post-apoc, sci-fi, etc.
And yes, I’ve absolutely enjoyed exploring the wilds of genre but I never lost my appetite for the weirder side of things. I can’t tell you what an effect reading Franz Kafka for the first time had on me, or Kurt Vonnegut, or Haruki Murakami. And for the longest time I’ve felt like I had an itch that needed to be scratched but nothing could reach that particular spot.
Until I started to hear about something called Bizarro fiction.
I said Bizarro fiction.
“What the hell is that?” I hear me asking, just last week.
Bizarro fiction is a literary movement described as Franz Kafka meets Joe Bob Briggs, Japanese animation by way of David Lynch, Dr. Seuss of the post-apocalypse. It’s the literary equivalent of the cult section of a video shop. Sometimes surreal, sometimes goofy, sometimes bloody, and sometimes borderline pornographic. And primarily based in Portland, Oregon.
I looked upon this genre, with its strange titles and weird book covers, and knew I had to give it a go. I needed to see if this was the answer to the question I’d forgotten to ask.
Well… was it?
Luckily for noobs to the genre, there are books designed just for this purpose called Bizarro Fiction Starter Kits. They come in several flavours. As I’m one for a good satsuma, I started my reading with the Orange one.
The book opens with several short stories by a chap called D. Harlan Wilson. Yes. ‘D’ one and only.
I got some Kakfa. Yes. I got a little bit of Etgar Keret. Some Simon Rich. And a ton of Adult Swim cartoons. There’s a wild and free creativity, explosive humour, constantly smashing juxtaposing ideas together and making sparks fly.
There was a short story about a bodybuilder breaking into a man’s house and forcing the occupants to look at his posing routine. There was another short story about a funeral where the recently deceased wake up for a spell. Another one where all the adults had buried themselves in the mud to escape from their incredibly annoying children.
It was a great start to my explorations.
The next part of the Starter Kit was dedicated to Carlton Mellick III (the 3rd of the Carlton Mellick line). If Wilson’s stories were bizarre, Mellick’s were a step further. It was a surrealist, almost dada story called The Baby Jesus Buttplug. It starts off with some truly hilarious conversation between a couple looking to purchase a pet baby jesus to use as a buttplug. However, it the drugs kick in at the halfway point, and any attempt and trying to find a floor of logic only unmoors you further. By the end, you’re pretty much ready to and sit down in a dark room for a few hours.
Next up in my journey, we had Extinction Journals by Jeremy Robert Johnson.
Ah… I know this guy. Not personally. But his work pops up in horror writing circles quite a lot. I even read (and adored) his novella, In The River, last year.
This is a weird, bombastic, post-apocalyptic story about a guy wearing a suit made of cockroaches… eating the President who’s wearing a suit made of Twinkie’s. There’s more bugs, a sort-of cyclops God thing, and a smidgen of romance.
Here’s the rub: I didn’t like this one at first. I found the initial concept obtuse to the point of confusion. But slowly the lines were drawn, the colours filled, and we ended up with a straight-up surrealist painting come to life and directed by a 70s cult cinema director. As difficult as this one was to make sense of, initially, this one has been my favourite so far. It was challenging in the best way possible. A story that’s worthy of chewing on, of figuring out all its interesting kinks.
And that’s where I’m up to with this crazy little thing called Bizarro.
A quick taster of three bizarro authors. All completely different, all mind-meltingly rewarding to read, with works that were genuinely surprising.
Have I found the thing that I’ve been missing?
In all honesty, I’m still picking up the pieces of my brain, trying to make sense of it all. But I think so. It definitely hits all of those notes that I felt were missing from my life, but there’s also something more going on. More than I expected.
I feel like I’m back on the football field, still alone, but across the way I see another football field, and another one, and another one. Fields as far as I can see. Each with their own glorious little weirdo inside, wearing their own colours, playing a game that only they know the rules to.
From across the way, I’m waving.
And I think they’re waving back.