10 of the Weirdest Novels Ever Written
While the following ten novels are some of the most unusual ever written, it would be foolish for many reasons to claim they are the weirdest. Not even taking into consideration the subjectivity inherent in any judgment of a novel's relative weirdness, there is the sheer multitude of novels that are forgotten in the realms of Out-of-Print, or are handbound and underground, or are simply not worth reading.
To this end, I have limited myself to novels that are in print, available in English and are critically esteemed for their literary merit--indeed, some on this list are genuine classics.
Further, by limiting myself to ten novels, I naturally must leave out some works that are equally worthy of appearing on this list. As for why, say, Huysmans and not Kafka makes the list, I have only my taste and intuition for justification.
Finally, I have tried to vary selections by having some old and some new, some weird in terms of content and others weird in terms of form. Hopefully in this variety you will find some novelty to delight you.
10. Against Nature
Joris-Karl Huysmans became a leader of French decadence when he wrote this fin-de-siecle novel. One des Esseintes is essentially the sole character, with a few other people rarely glimpsed for purely functional purposes, not unlike objects. The novel follows des Esseintes in his bizarre self-indulgences, like his encrusting a turtle with jewels--so many that it can't move and dies--his tastes in Latin literature, his seeking out of the strangest plants, his binding a room like a book, his attempts to eat entirely by means of enemas and so forth. Most miraculously, Huysmans manages to make Against Nature quite a gripping novel.
9. The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr
E.T.A. Hoffman, as the major figure of German Romanticism and the inventor of modern 'magic realism,' was possibly the greatest and certainly the most influential author of 19th century Germany. He was already at the height of his career when he penned his last great novel and masterpiece, The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr, often subtitled, together with a fragmentary Biography of Kappelmeister Johannes Kreisler on Random Sheets of Waste Paper.
Tomcat Murr--a real cat, self-taught to read and write--sets out to write his autobiography, using the composer Johannes Kreisler's biography for a blotting pad (i.e. scrap paper). By a printer's error these two biographies are woven together. What we read in Tomcat Murr is the result of this error: the unnaturally spliced biographies of a likeable if pompous and bourgeois tomcat and a moody, melancholic composer, paralleling one another in unexpected ways.
8. Not Wanted on the Voyage
What happens when Canadian post-modernist Timothy Findley decides to retell the story of Noah's Ark with no concern for 'historical' accuracy or fidelity to known texts? You get Not Wanted on the Voyage. Did you know that Noah's last name is Noyes, that he was a doctor who experimented on animals, that unicorns were the size of dogs, that animals used to be able to talk, that Lucifer is a seven-foot-tall woman with webbed fingers, or that Yahweh flooded the world on account of a depression? Fortunately, Findley informs us of such things.
The protagonists of the novel are Noah's wife, who is gradually becoming more rebellious towards her husband's obession with Yahweh's laws and tyrannical rule, and her cat Mottyl, who is 'not wanted on the voyage' because Yahweh wants his cats on the voyage of the Ark.
7. Life: A User's Manual
Life is a novel that contains many stories--one-hundred-seventy-nine to be exact--but has one central story, that of Bartlebooth, a man who has decided to devote his life to a meaningless task which culminates in solving a jigsaw puzzle. As the novel begins Bartlebooth has just died and at that moment Perec freezes activity in Bartlebooth's apartment block.
Perec dedicates one chapter to each room within the apartment block, going through them one-by-one in knight's moves until he's been through all, including the stairwell. Each room is described exhaustively. Occasionally, due to the occupants of the room, a chapter adds to the story of Bartlebooth and his life's work of solving jigsaw puzzles.
Naturally the experience of reading Life is itself an intellectual jigsaw puzzle in which the history of the apartment block and the lives of those within it are pieced together. The order in which one chooses to read the chapters matters little.
6. Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician
Considered Alfred Jarry's masterpiece, Faustroll concerns the founder of pataphysics, which is the study of exceptions rather than laws of nature. Faustroll, back on his rent, flees Paris in a sieve for a boat with a talking baboon on navigation. Hopping from island to island, Faustroll teaches his non-science and encounters many bizarre people and surreal events. Among the many exploits of Dr. Faustroll is calculating the surface of God.
5. Dictionary of the Khazars
Forget plot and characters; forget linear narrative; Dictionary of the Khazars, purporting to be an historical record of the Khazar people, is indeed written as a dictionary. The entries, as in any dictionary, are arranged in alphabetical order and can be read in any order one wishes. Nevertheless, the subject matter is fantasy.
The book is divided into three major sections, Christian, Islamic, and Hebrew, each according to the sometimes-conflicting sources they provide on the Khazar people. The Khazars, for the purposes of this novel, are a fictional, pre-10th century European tribe. Although there is much factual content in the novel, that it is not slavish to historical accuracy gives author Milorad Pavic's imagination much leeway; and he takes full advantage, filling the novel with bizarre, surrealistic touches, magic, and mystery.
Note, too, that there are two editions, one male and one female. These editions are the same, save for fifteen lines.
Also worth checking out is Pavic's later novel Last Love in Constantinople, in which each chapter is a card from a tarot deck and the reader may arrange the chapters at will, 'divine' their own story by choosing the order.
4. Alphabetical Africa
Alphabetical Africa, as one might have guessed, is a novel with a gimmick. The first chapter contains only words that begin with the letter 'A'. The second chapter allows words that begin with 'B' as well, the third 'C' words, and so on to chapter twenty-six. Then chapter twenty-seven begins taking away, starting with the 'Z' words all the way back to just 'A' words again.
Within this structure, author Walter Abish tells a tale of jewel thieves seeking a female partner, who has fled to Africa after betraying her partners and with whom the narrator is in love. Meanwhile, Africa is invaded by an army of ants and is painted orange by a tranvestite queen of Zanzibar.
3. How It Is
The final novel of Samuel Beckett, How It Is certainly is a fitting swan song for a career of weird. The entire novel is written without punctuation in a series of short paragraphs. It is divided into three parts, as the opening sentence informs: before Pim, with Pim, and after Pim. All parts, however, consist of one main action: one person crawling through mud, infinite (it seems) mud.
Were that not odd enough, it is written in the style of Beckett's earlier novels, that is, primarily the stream-of-consciousness of a scarcely human mind. Here is one paragraph for a sample, "the tongue gets clogged with mud that can happen too only one remedy then pull it in and suck it swallow the mud or spit it out it's one or the other and question is it nourishing and vistas last a moment with that"
2. If on a Winter's Night a Traveler
If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, by Italo Calvino, tells the story of the Reader, who is trying to read a book called If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino. Unfortunately, he finds his goal continuously frustrated by printing errors, being given the wrong book and a vast literary conspiracy amongst other things.
Along the way, Calvino allows you, the reader, to read the chapters from the books the Reader reads but never gets to finish and which you will never get to finish. Each of these chapters involves a pastiche of one of several genres and styles. You also get to meet the Other Reader with whom you may just fall in love before you finish reading If on a Winter's Night a Traveler.
1. Finnegans Wake
James Joyce's final work, Finnegans Wake must be the weirdest novel ever written. Joyce spent seventeen years of his life writing the Wake due to the sheer amount of research involved. Nearly every word and ever sentence in Finnegans Wake can be read a dozen ways on account of deliberate misspellings and invented portmanteaus that hint at other words--in up to sixty different languages! For instance, "What then agentlike brought about that tragoady thundersday this municipal sin business? Our cubehouse still rocks as earwitness to the thunder of his arafatas..."
Apparently the story of the Finnegan's death and the consequences, it also reads as a history of the world and a history of thought. There's nothing else like it; though one novel that approaches is the obviously-influenced Gilligan's Wake, which lightly applies the Finnegans Wake technique to the characters of Gilligan's Island with interesting results.