Some novels are just weird. Or absurd, surreal, and a few other adjectives. You may love or hate such books, and they may be great or not great, but they’re just…weird. And thus memorable.
I thought about that when recently reading Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman. Nope, not a law-enforcement version of The Third Man, but a darkly humorous tale of a guy who meets a bunch of bicycle-obsessed cops in a disorienting netherworld. So unusual a novel that it wasn’t published until after the death of Brian O’Nolan (Flann O’Brien’s real name) — nearly three decades after he wrote the book.
Is The Third Policeman‘s protagonist actually dead for most of the novel? Hmm. That’s certainly the case in Robertson Davies’ Murther and Walking Spirits, whose murdered lead character quickly becomes a ghost and then attends a film festival where he watches “movies” of his ancestors — “movies” no other festival attendee can see.
Better known examples of odd fare include Lewis Carroll’s unnerving/delightful Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire (part poem, part text, wholly nuts protagonist?), and several novels by Kurt Vonnegut and John Irving. The latter’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, for instance, features a VERY quirky title character and the death-by-baseball of Owen’s best friend’s mother. To misquote a famous song, it’s sad to be taken out at the ballgame.
Another wacky work — Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair — references a famous novel as literary detective Thursday Next enters the pages of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre via a “Prose Portal” to interact with Jane and Rochester. The height (albeit not wuthering) of peculiar-ness.
Also peculiar is Herman Melville’s Pierre, which was lambasted by critics in 1852 for being another “p” word: perverse. The novel depicts an incestuous (or near-incestuous) relationship and also devotes many pages to Pierre ultra-obsessively writing a book that ends up being loathed — reflecting Melville’s bitterness at the harsh response to his 1851 masterpiece Moby-Dick. “I would prefer not to” be magnanimous about critics’ stupidity, a Bartleby-channeling Melville might have said.
Another 19th-century novel with plenty of eccentricity is Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, in which the Karamazov dad is one crazy dude and the book’s devil scene is a wonderfully outlandish standout in literary history. Heck, that wily devil could have won the GOP caucuses in Iowa — or did he?
Additional 1800s books with strange content include Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (in which Catherine Morland is goofily obsessed with Gothic fiction), Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (about a way-out voyage way out to sea), Alexandre Dumas’ The Black Tulip (we’re talking a tulip contest smackdown here), and Wilkie Collins’ Armadale (which includes four…count ’em…four characters named Allan Armadale).
Going back to the 1700s, we have Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels — which, when you think about its big people and small people, is rather kooky amid its more sober content.
Yes, offbeat novels can also be deadly serious or satirically serious for many of their pages. A number of the books mentioned in this post fit that description — as do some of the post-1900 works I’m about to name.
Erich Maria Remarque’s The Black Obelisk, for instance, is partly a devastating look at Nazism’s early days but also gets quite zany at times with things like a recurring urination motif. Jack London’s Before Adam takes a fascinating look at early human evolution, but some of the passages — whether intentionally or not — are kind of madcap. John Steinbeck’s To a God Unknown features a dead dad as a tree — ’nuff said. Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers is intense horror/sci-fi, but also daffy at the same time. Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman is…oh, heck, you know that novel screams “outre” from the title alone.
What are your favorite novels with some or many weird moments?
(And, yes, some of Dr. Seuss’ great writing and drawing is bonkers. Hat-wearing cat? Eleven-fingered creature? The consumption of green eggs? Sheesh…)
(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone else.)
I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.