(This post was inspired by S.T. Cartledge and Zé Burns, who both recently shared their stories of how they discovered bizarro.)
The walls were white—not eggshell or ivory or smoke-stained, but white-white—and the room was small. There was barely enough space next to the bed to wedge in a nightstand, and on that nightstand there was barely enough room for a lamp, a clock, a bottomless glass of water, and a small amber bottle of pain killers. The good stuff.
In the bed was me, laid up sorry after a bout with a good-sized kidney stone, and disappointed to be finishing Chuck Palahniuk’s Damned on my trusty Kindle. I wasn’t let down by the story; I was sad because it would be a long time until another book came out from an author I liked this much. Most fiction, it seemed to me at the time, was either boring or pretentious.
Click—Other books by this author . . .
I was all caught up with Chuck P.
Click—Customers who bought this book also bought . . .
Fuckness by Andersen Prunty.
Going nowhere and doing nothing, I bought the book based only on its title and I read it with delight. An old friend came to mind, someone I thought would also dig something like Fuckness. I looked him up, wanting to introduce him to something new, to be that cool friend who makes the find. Instead, he already knew about Prunty and this whole movement called bizarro.
He sent me the first issue of “The Magazine of Bizarro Fiction,” which could have opened up a whole new world of fiction to explore. But too soon I was back at work, and back in the flow of researching and writing nonfiction.
* * *
Five years later a cascade of tiny stones tried to escape my left kidney all at once. Their spiky structure led to a log jam in my ureter, just even with my navel. It was exactly as fun as it sounds.
The walls are a pale blue-green now. We’re in a different house and I’m on the couch with my never-ending glass of water and bottle of oxy, in need of fiction. This is when I got hooked for real. With only Kindle recommendations to guide me, I floundered around, from Prunty to Mellick to Mykle Hansen, Jeff Strand, Jeremy Robert Johnson, Cameron Pierce, Laura Lee Bahr, Danger Slater, more Mellick, Bradley Sands, Max Booth III.
Two surgeries kept me out of commission for over a month. I read bizarro and bizarro-related authors the whole time, most of it in a gentle opiate haze that didn’t hurt my fondness (and at times downright glee) for what I was reading.
Gina Ranalli, Betty Rocksteady, Adam Millard, Jeff Burk, Tiffany Scandal, Violet LeVoit, more Mellick, Cody Goodfellow, Edward Lee, CV Hunt, Vince Kramer, Justin Grimbol, Bix Skahill, and Emma Johnson.
By the time I finally healed, the place I’d been working had evaporated. I was back to being a housewife and a mom with a lot of time on my hands, so I just kept reading.
That was the winter of 2016-2017. So it wasn’t very long ago, really, that bizarro books helped me through some of the most intense physical pain in my life. There’s a joy to them, an energy, even at their darkest, that I don’t feel in any other genre, a reveling in the weirdness and absurdity of life and in the possibilities of one creative mind to communicate with another. The punk rock ethos isn’t lost on me, either.
At its best, bizarro is surprising, insightful, and inspiring—not in any superficial way but in saying let’s explore this fucked up world, even if it is full of tentacles and ass goblins and everybody’s going to end up sprouting antlers. Let’s make our metaphors bigger than life and let things be funny and tragic at the same time, because that’s how life is. Let’s write stories that are fun to read even if not everybody gets it.
I’ve moved from the voice of the reader to that of the writer now, but that transition is a story for another day. For today I just want to say “Hooray for bizarro!” With all its pock marks and blemishes—the social turmoil that sometimes happens outside the books and the failed experiments that can happen inside them—there’s something uniquely valuable in this genre, something that goes beyond the superficial weirdness and shock value to the heart of what it means to be a human who has to wake up and face this fucked up world day after day.
And thank you to all the writers I mentioned and all the others I’ve discovered over the last two years, as well as to all the small presses who print them. Thanks to you all, I’ve gone from having nothing to read to having a to-be-read list as long as a human Santapede.