I’ve had some great fun reading surreal, magical, and just plain odd books. They’re brilliant at both lightening your mind and giving you the space to think about issues in a new or less static way.
Here’s a mix of the most fantastical and bizarre books I have read, including both my favorites and others that I think fit too well not to be included, even if they didn’t do it for me.
Do you have any beloved surrealist books? Books of odd characters and unbelievable circumstances?
L’Ecume des Jours / Froth on the Daydream, Boris Vian: Let’s start with the most abstract.
I wanted to read this surrealist novel for ages and was finally able to when I discovered they had it at the Yale library. One problem: it was simply too surreal and convoluted for me. Don’t get me wrong- I’m a great fan of magical realism and the inventive use of language, but I also like a story that holds you. And all the infringing confusion put me off. But if you’re a big fan of surrealist novels, definitely check this one. And watch the film with Audrey Tautou, called Mood Indigo.
“Though told in a linear style, the novel concerns multiple plot lines, including the love stories of two couples, talking mice, and a man who ages years in a week.”
The Hearing Trumpet, Leonora Carrington: Alice in Wonderland as a nonagenarian.
I truly loved this one, it was so fantastical. And elderly woman is given a hearing trumpet, only to discover that her family is conspiring to have her committed to an institution, when all she wants to do is move to Lappland and have great fluffy floofer dogs. It’s a short read with some imaginative illustrations. I believe there are also pot brownies at some point.
“This is an institution where the buildings are shaped like birthday cakes and igloos, where the Winking Abbess and the Queen Bee reign, and where the gateway to the underworld is wide open. It is also the scene of a mysterious murder.”
The Man Who Was Thursday, GK Chesterton: Called by the author, “a very melodramatic sort of moonshine.”
I found this play by seeing it enacted at Yale with a friend, it’s another short read (bless plays for that) but with a good dash of oddity and some very fun wordplay. Think secret societies, spies, anarchists, and maybe a little metaphysics. If your name were a day of the week, which day would it be? I have a feeling I would be a Tuesday.
“Set in a phantasmagoric London where policemen are poets and anarchists camouflage themselves as, well, anarchists, his 1907 novel offers up one highly colored enigma after another. Our hero is Gabriel Syme, a policeman who cannot reveal that his fellow poet Lucian Gregory is an anarchist. Elected undercover into the Central European Council of anarchists, Syme must avoid discovery and save the world from any bombings in the offing.”
Zuleika Dobson, Max Beerbohm: The upper class manners and conflicts of Edith Wharton after an acid trip.
Zuleika Dobson takes place in Edwardian Oxford and it’s one of the best. It’s a simple and standard set up: the beauty and charm of one woman- the titular Zuleika Dobson- inspires desire and jealousy among the scholars at Oxford. But that’s the only thing standard about this novel, in which pearls change color like mood rings and men are quite literally willing to die for love.
“Max Beerbohm’s sparklingly wicked satire concerns the unlikely events that occur when a femme fatale briefly enters the supremely privileged, all-male domain of Judas College, Oxford. A conjurer by profession, Zuleika Dobson can only love a man who is impervious to her considerable charms: a circumstance that proves fatal, as any number of love-smitten suitors are driven to suicide by the damsel’s rejection.”
The Mystery of Irma Vep, Charles Ludlam: A play of many for a cast of two.
I know I’ve talked about this one before but it is the most hilarious- apart from reading it, do watch it acted if you can. There’s a whole additional layer of humor that comes from the fast changes and ridiculous contortions required to make this play work with such a small cast- a requirement of the playbook. Another requirement? Both actors must be of the same sex, so crossdressing abounds, what with 35 costume changes over the two hour run time. It’s campy, with some very witty innuendo, and lots of supernatural references (to vampires, ghosts, mummies, and werewolves). So I’ll leave you guessing. Are things really what they seem or is there something more sinister looming?
“It is a satire of several theatrical, literary and film genres, including Victorian melodrama, farce, the penny dreadful, Wuthering Heights and the Alfred Hitchcock film Rebecca (1940).”
The Circus of Dr. Lao, Charles G. Finney: An odd circus in a small town.
How would you describe your sense of humor? Sardonic? Do you enjoy lampooning? Then certainly do read this. The improbable sideshows (of which my favorite is the Hound of the Mound) draw the ‘everyday Americans’ of the local town- Abalone, Arizona. And it’s an experience they’ll never forget. So is it a bear, or no?
“The Circus of Dr. Lao is an irreverent, licentious, insolent and most amusing book. For sardonic gaiety under fire, for the relief of a good guffaw, here is a circus of legendary creatures (with illustrations by Boris Artzybasheff) which is at once a play, a dream (if not a nightmare), a fantasy of science fiction that is horrifying, disgusting, intriguing, scintillating.”
Max and the Cats, Moacyr Scliar: Life of Pi, but good.
Let’s be clear: Max and the Cats- in which a man is stranded on a dinghy with a jaguar- predates The Life of Pi- in which a man is stranded on a lifeboat with a tiger. If you liked Life of Pi, read this. If you didn’t like Life of Pi (I didn’t), read this- because it’s better. There’s more going on, it’s less self conscious, more interesting. I think the following summary is quite accurate, so I’m going to let it do the heavy lifting:
” It tells the story of Max Schmidt, born in Berlin in 1912, who comes of age just before the Nazis take power. After offending them by having an affair with a married woman, Max is forced to flee the country. He ends up on a ship bound for Brazil that sinks as part of an insurance scam and finds himself trapped in a dinghy with a jaguar—one of a number of zoo animals caged in the hold—but after being rescued and making a life for himself in Brazil continues to find his German past impossible to escape.”
Lady into Fox, David Garnett: Help, my wife is a fox!
Or maybe this is my favorite work on this list. It’s short, tender, amusing, and ultimately pretty heart-wrenching. A man’s wife is transformed into a fox but still retains her memories, thoughts, feelings- her humanity. For a little while at least. What can he do? How can he take care of her and hide the truth? What is best for her?
It’s a rare book- but definitely read it if you find it! It comes to you with my highest recommendations, but no blurb because I can’t find a suitable one.
The Young Visiters, Daisy Ashford: If a nine year-old wrote it, chances are it’s bizarre.
Love and social climbing in Victorian times from a young person’s point of view. It’s simple, it’s ingenuous. Frankly it’s adorable. And thankfully short, so the imaginitive grammar and spelling errors don’t get grating.
“42-year-old Alfred Salteena, who, born on the wrong side of the blanket, wishes to become a gentleman. The suave and well-connected earl of Clincham imparts to his apt pupil (without irony and with telling accuracy) the essence of becoming one of the upper class: have plenty of money, keep your unsavory past hidden, wear the right clothing and, above all, know how to hunt, shoot and ride. Armed with this knowledge, Salteena is instantly transformed into Lory Hyssops and gets a job with the royal family.”
The House of Paper, Carlos Maria Dominguez: Bibliophilia (and architecture) run amok.
This is a suitable book to end with, as a book about books. And I personally love it. It’s a lovely meditation on the themes of collecting, love, time, and death. All wrapped up in an enveloping and strange story of a life that took an odd turn.
“Bluma Lennon, distinguished professor of Latin American literature at Cambridge, is hit by a car while crossing the street, immersed in a volume of Emily Dickinson’s poems. Several months after her untimely demise, a package arrives for her from Argentina-a copy of a Conrad novel, encrusted in cement and inscribed with a mysterious dedication. Bluma’s successor in the department (and a former lover) travels to Buenos Aires to track down the sender, one Carlos Brauer, who turns out to have disappeared. The last thing known is that he moved to a remote stretch of the Uruguayan coastline and built himself a house out of his enormous and valuable library. How he got there, and why, is the subject of this seductive novel-part mystery, part social comedy, and part examination of all the many forms of bibliomania.”
I thought about adding Pedro Paramo but that’s closer toward magical realism than the frankly bizarre, and I couldn’t nudge magical realism without including Marquez (one of my favorite authors) and then there would be an avalanche. So if you’re looking for more recommendations, imagine a voice whispering Pedro Paramo in your ear. And then another one screaming MARQUEZ at you.