Weird is hard to define. A cousin of odd, it tends to make us slightly uncomfortable. And yet, in time, the abnormal can be made normal and the unknown made familiar. Wearing a face mask wasn’t common three years ago and, depending on where you live, it’s the new norm now. As a species, we adapt to last. But as individuals, we carry unique thoughts and feelings and react to the world according to our own understanding of it.
Bizarre, like strange, is in the eye of the beholder. We have all integrated WTF barometers we apply to the endless stream of stimuli bombarding our eyeballs. We live our lives in media res and the whirlwind of WTF can lock us into a state of anxiety. Who knows what will follow? Not me, but I suspect it’s not good. My lack of control over what tomorrow will bring makes me nervous. When the creeping feeling of dread gets too strong, I read news. At the very least, I know there will be an end and that it is coming soon.
Strange news are gifts from strangers. After tearing open the packaging and setting the oddly strange object on the table, you might say, “WTF, is that it? It’s nothing you asked for, but maybe something you need. It captures your attention. Sure, you don’t understand what you’re supposed to do with it, but it’s better than another scented candle. Fortunately, your gift comes with an instruction manual. And if you’re careful, take your time, and stay open to the possibility of discovery, it may turn out to be the best gift you’ve ever received.
Here are four writers who write oddly beautifully:
Steven Millhauser is my favorite living short story writer. He’s as close to a real-life wizard as you can get. He writes with Houdini’s hands and I am enchanted by his stories.
To anyone who has never encountered a Millhauser story, I recommend his complete works, We others. These new and selected stories span over 30 years. In addition to several new stories included in the book, there are stories from In the Penny Arcade, Barnum Museum, The knife throwerand Dangerous laugh. Once you’ve read the sample stories from his earlier work, I strongly suggest you go back and read the rest.
Millhauser’s stories are almost always disorienting from the start. The first story in We others is called “The Slap”. The play opens when a man, Walter Lasher, is approached by a stranger in a parking lot and is slapped hard across the face. The attack is, apparently, unprovoked and a random act of violence. From the start, we ask ourselves questions: what did Walter do to deserve this? How will he respond to the attack? Who is the Slapper?
In these stories, aliens land, ghosts tell, the art of magic comes alive, a knife thrower comes to town, and yes, characters get slapped. Shocking a reader at the start of a story to trick them onto the page isn’t difficult. The hard part is coaxing the reader, sentence by sentence, and the greatness of Millhauser’s work is not in its disorientation but in the way it redirects you. “The Slap”, for example, is a model story. This story style benefits from escalation – first Walter Lasher gets slapped, then Robert Sutliff gets slapped, then Charles Kraus gets slapped! – until the weirdness of getting slapped feels familiar. In fact, a reader begins to wonder why more people are not get slapped.
The stories I love don’t have happy endings.
Of course, a pattern story that is simply an escalation of the core routine is trivial. The pattern must break. We demand answers to the questions the writer made us ask at the beginning. And the answers must be right. If the answers are predictable, which we expected all along, we are disappointed. If the answers are too vague or confusing, we get angry. Millhauser’s answers proceed from the logic of the story and they are always satisfying. Once we’ve been slapped by a Millhauser story, we can’t be UN-slap.
News writers understand the beauty of compression. And they also realize that every word that appears after the first sentence moves feverishly toward the end. If a writer doesn’t provide the perfect ending, the rest of the story risks being forgotten. To me, Karen Russell is a literary gymnast who knows exactly how to stick the landing.
In each of the stories in Russell’s collections (Saint Lucia Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, Vampires in the lemon gardenand orange world), the characters become the stabilizing epicenter of the strange. Yes, girls are wolves. Yes, there is a vampire in the lemon tree. Yes, there is a demon in the gutter in front of the window. These things are true in the world of a Karen Russell story. But what keeps me coming back to these plays is the perseverance of the protagonists. They are injured, but they are not victims. They are returned, not lost. They’ve been pushed off a cliff, but their nails are still clinging to the edge. We understand their vulnerabilities and encourage them to somehow overcome their seemingly doomed situation.
My favorite endings provide the reader with an image or a gesture. The protagonist performs a final act: returns to the pack, faces the monster in the mirror, calls mom. We think about what the gesture means to the character, and in doing so, we clarify what it means to us. This is how the dream of history is perpetuated in our imagination.
What I admire most about Ted Chiang’s short story collections (Stories of your life and others and Exhalation) is his ability to provide his narratives with galaxy-sized concepts within the confines of a kettle. He does this by always turning the lens inward, delving into the nuances of humanity despite the quirks of humans.
The titular story in Exhalation, told in an epistolary style, finds the first-person narrator contemplating the end of life. Chiang’s choice of format is brilliant – letters are, after all, artifacts and tangible things that can be examined. By taking a notion that is difficult to describe (the end of life) and inserting it into a confined space (a letter), the form itself counteracts the vanity. Chiang is invested in the journey of discovery and he never leaves the reader behind. “Exhalation” is perfect, ruminative and surprising. The piece is not an overbearing doomsday warning; it’s a reminder to persist even when the clock runs out.
Brian Evenson is the king of literary horror. The collections I recommend are Collapse of horses, Song for the unraveling of the worldand The glassy, burning floor of hell.
Evenson’s stories are weird, like being in a store – in a mask – and seeing someone who looks vaguely familiar. You can’t quite identify the person, so you follow them into the parking lot and watch them get into a car that looks like yours. For a split second, you wonder if you’ve been robbed. But no, your car is a few rows away and while you’re driving, distracted, you wonder who it was. When you come home, you find the person in your living room sitting in your chair. Unmasked, they look exactly like you. But when you tear off your own mask to face the unknown, you discover that your face has changed. You are not at all who you thought you were. In fact, you might be the odd one out.
The act of reading is intimate and the best stories read as if they were written especially for us. One way for a writer to cling to a reader is to unsettle them. Evenson’s work isn’t scary, it’s psychologically terrifying. It disrupts our expectations and draws our attention to the margin. My favorite piece from his latest collection, The glassy, burning floor of hell, is “The Glittering Wall”. The story begins: “Those domed parts of the city weren’t the city at all – or maybe the parts we lived in were what wasn’t the city.” WTF, right? We are guests in Evenson country and it is an exciting place to be.
The stories I love don’t have happy endings. A happy ending is like the fluorescent lighting of a grocery store where all the carefully crafted products are illuminated and ready to eat – an unsettling sight. Nor am I in the mood for stories that plunge me into a bottomless pit of hopelessness and despair. I’ve had enough of the news.
The pieces that I like seem strange at first glance. These are gifts I don’t think I need. Gradually, however, the strangeness fades and you discover that what the writer gave you is a match. The world is filled with dark places and stories offer us the opportunity to provide light. Look around you. Strike anywhere.
Shadows by Jason Ockert is available through Dzanc Books.