I like strange books. Well, I like most books, but I especially like the strange ones. Strange fiction books, to be exact. Books that may seem to have no point whatsoever: books that may leave you asking, what the hell was that about? Well-written books, with a touch of sarcastic irony, and/or a hint of violence, and/or a dash of drug use, and/or a smudge of perverse, seemingly deviant notions. Sometimes there’s a semblance of a love story sprinkled in. There will probably be very strange protagonists. The first line of the book may begin with someone doing something very mundane, such as sitting on the toilet.
Many times, the characters aren’t entirely that likable. Cynically honest books. Self-deprecating, wickedly funny books. There’s also a lot of sorrow and depression. And some form of drug use, most likely. There probably won’t be a happy ending. Darkly humorous books. Books that highlight the absurdity of life.
Common themes include loneliness, depression, madness, self-hatred, apathy towards the whole of the human race, suicide, addiction, death. The kind of books that people either hate intensely or love immensely. I happen to fall into the ‘love’ category. (Maybe if you’ve read anything by Ottessa Moshfegh, you might know what I’m talking about.)
This is my list of bizarre & strange fiction books I really love:
My Year of Rest and Relaxation
by Ottessa Moshfegh
The plot: an unnamed woman, living in New York City in the early 2000s, attempts to sleep for an entire year with the aid of prescription drugs. How could this be interesting? you may ask yourself. I’m not entirely sure, to be honest, but I know that I could not put this book down. So sardonic! A level of unmatched cynicism! I was hooked on Ottessa Moshfegh’s work after inhaling this gem of a novel.
Oh, and My Year of Rest and Relaxation was a New York Times Bestseller as well, so it has that going for it.
OH, SLEEP. Nothing else could ever bring me such pleasure, such freedom, the power to feel and move and think and imagine, safe from the miseries of my waking consciousness.
But I think I was also holding on to the loss, to the emptiness of the house itself, as though to affirm that it was better to be alone than to be stuck with people who were supposed to love you, yet couldn’t.
This was how I knew the sleep was having an effect: I was growing less and less attached to life. If I kept going, I thought, I’d disappear completely, then reappear in some new form. This was my hope. This was the dream.
Was this good? Was this the beginning of the new life? Renewed romance? Did I want that? My heart reared up like a frightened horse, an idiot.
I wondered if I might be dead, and I felt no sorrow, only worry over the afterlife, if it was going to be just like this, just as boring. If I’m dead, I thought, let this be the end. The silliness.
by Lucie Britsch
The plot: a deeply miserable woman who works at a rundown dog shelter in the woods is given a chance at happiness with the help of prescription “happy pills.” This book was hilarious to me and made me laugh out loud numerous times. I read it right around Christmastime, which was fitting, as that’s the time of year the book takes place. It’s spiky. It’s cynical.
And it has dogs in it, so that’s a win as well.
I don’t even really like the taste of wine, it’s just that when I was a kid, I thought that when I grew up I’d be one of those women who drinks wine alone at night, and I wanted at least one of my dreams to come true.
Happiness is not on my radar. I want other things. Like control over my life, my body. Like being able to get through a day without feeling like I’m doing it wrong. I want to feel all my feelings, not swallow them, and if they swallow me, so be it.
Only I was never really sure there were girls like me. At school it was always, No one wants to start a coven, Janet! We’re tormenting boys and kissing them, and if you’re not into that, then you better fuck off to the library. Only I was already there, looking for books that would tell me how to hex them all.
When I was younger, I thought I might want to be happy when I grew up. It was something I might at least want to try, like making my own bread, or a home enema. I quickly came to realize, though, that it’s the kind of thing I could never sustain in my regular life, like bangs or a gym membership.
I wear my apathy like it’s perfume I stole from Sephora.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
by Olga Tokarczuk
The plot: this book follows an eccentric older recluse living in Poland who stumbles on a crazy series of murders. It’s the strangest thriller kind of book I’ve read, but I absolutely adored it.
And then it occurred to me that in a way Big Foot’s death might be a good thing. It had freed him from the mess that was his life. And it had freed other living Creatures from him. Oh yes, suddenly I realized what a good thing death can be, how just and fair, like a disinfectant, or a vacuum cleaner.
It’s hard work talking to some people, most often males.
Death is at the gates, I thought. But then death is always at our gates, at every hour of the day and Night, I told myself. For the best conversations are with yourself. At least there’s no risk of a misunderstanding.
Perhaps one could get used to it? Learn to live with it, just as people live in the cities of Auschwitz or Hiroshima, without ever thinking about what happened there in the past. They simply live their lives.
I’d nod off at dawn and wake in the afternoon, which may have been a natural defense against the daylight, against the day in general and everything that belonged to it.
Our loved ones will leave us, the memory of them will dissolve in the tumult; nothing will remain. Just a few clothes in the wardrobe and someone in a photograph, no longer recognized. The most precious memories will dissipate. Everything will sink into darkness and vanish.
Animals Eat Each Other
by Elle Nash
The plot: this book is pretty dark. The story follows the unnamed protagonist who becomes involved in a sado-masochistic type of relationship with a sexually deviant couple, Matt and Frances. Our main character spends her time snorting her mom’s pills and having sex as a means of validation. It’s fierce. It’s savage. It’s well-written (in my humble opinion.)
I did too many things to my body that made it feel old and tired, as though I were dragging all of the mistakes I’d ever made behind me with each step.
I didn’t know if I was crying because it hurt so bad or if I was crying because I had failed by letting the pain hurt me so much.
She was not afraid to demand what she wanted, and I envied that. I spent so much of my life doing what everybody asked me that I wasn’t even sure what I wanted anymore, if I wanted anything, if I had needs at all.
I watched the faces of other people. I didn’t look like them. They all looked the same—clean, happy.
Maybe it wasn’t true love after all. That was disappointing. I had hoped it was true love, that something like that could exist. Instead, it was just sex. Like everything else.
The Tiger’s Wife
by Téa Obreht
The plot: a woman working toward her healthcare degree reminisces over the stories her grandfather told her throughout her childhood. God, I fell in love with this book: I really did. There’s a touch of magical realism to this story, which makes it all the more endearing. It’s a beautifully written drama. Her latest book, Inland, is equally wonderful.
I would still go to sleep hoping that he would find his way into my dreams and tell me something important. I was always disappointed, of course, because even when I did dream of him, he would inevitably be sitting in an armchair we didn’t own, in a room I didn’t recognize, and he would say things like, Bring me the newspaper, I’m hungry, and I would know, even in my sleep, that it didn’t mean a fucking thing.
The ritual rhythms of this life were built into Mother Vera’s nature, an asset she hoped would adhere to my grandfather, too: the logical and straightforward process of moving from season to season, from birth to death, without unnecessary sentiment.
He shifted from one foot to the other, cleared his throat. “You like Bob Dylan?” “I like Springsteen better,” I said, and marveled at my own idiocy.
There was something familiar about the room and the village, a crowded feeling of sadness that crawled into my gut, but not for the first time, like a note of music I could recognize but not name.
In the end, all you want is someone to long for you when it comes time to put you in the ground.
by Sigrid Nunez
The plot: a woman takes in the dog her friend and former lover, who has just taken his own life, has left behind. Suicide is a prevalent theme is this book, as is grief. I love how she wrote the dog character… you really get a sense of his personality. I absolutely loved this book and have read it more than once. Also check out her novel What Are You Going Through.
What we miss — what we lose and what we mourn — isn’t it this that makes us who, deep down, we truly are.
Nothing has changed. It’s still very simple. I miss him. I miss him every day. I miss him very much. But how would it be if that feeling was gone? I would not want that to happen. I told the shrink: It would not make me happy at all not to miss him anymore. You can’t hurry love, as the song goes. You can’t hurry grief, either.
Everything terrible is something that needs our love.
Beware irony, ignore criticism, look to what is simple, study the small and humble things of the world, do what is difficult precisely because it is difficult, do not search for answers but rather love the questions, do not run away from sadness or depression for these might be the very conditions necessary to your work. Seek solitude, above all seek solitude.
Strays is what a writer I recently read calls those who, for one reason or another, and despite whatever they might have wanted earlier in life, never really become a part of life, not in the way most people do. They may have serious relationships, they may have friends, even a sizable circle, they may spend large portions of their time in the company of others. But they never marry and they never have children. On holidays, they join some family or other group. This goes on year after year, until they finally find it in themselves to admit that they’d really rather just stay home.
The Life of the Mind
by Christine Smallwood
The plot: a young woman bumbles her way through life after just having experienced a miscarriage. This is definitely one of those books you’ll either love or hate. There are no fireworks, no explosions: just the mundane realities of life. I greatly enjoyed it.
Dorothy was comforted by the therapist’s warmth and womanliness, her aging but elastic skin, the way she clucked and wiped her hands like someone who had seen it all and intended to save you the trouble of seeing it for yourself.
She couldn’t go on like this, she knew, but she also couldn’t not go on.
She didn’t regret not telling Gaby, but it made her feel far away, like she was drifting in the ocean and Gaby was back on shore. If only there was some way to have the intimacy of telling without losing control over the story. That was the worst, when all your little pieces got scattered around.
So often Dorothy felt entirely alone; even with the people she loved most she felt encased in a diving bell or a clear plastic box, a cheap one, not like the sturdy plastic chaise she sat on now, and the things other people went around talking about and doing seemed objectively important and respectable but had no direct relevance to the circumstances of inhabiting her specific, disposable biodome. She was aware that putting it that way was an admission of gross privilege and elitism but such self-laceration only made the feeling of the biodome more pronounced.
“Heyyyy,” she texted, counting on the extra y’s to imply that her text was fun, that she was fine, that they were great friends, and that she was witty and debonair rather than an exhausted resin-spewing sack overwhelmed by the cold onslaught of vodka penetrating her brain.
by Ottessa Moshfegh
The plot: an isolated young woman working at a correctional facility meets a new friend who ultimately turns her life upside down. This is probably my favorite book of Ottessa Moshfegh’s. It’s dark. It’s surprising. You should also check out her other books, Death In Her Hands and Homesick For Another World. And of course her latest, Lapvona, which I adored in equal measure.
But I deplored silence. I deplored stillness. I hated almost everything. I was very unhappy and angry all the time.
I wasn’t interested in fun or popularity back then. I preferred to read about ancient times, distant lands. Knowledge of anything current or faddish made me feel I was just a victim of isolation. If I avoided all that on purpose, I could believe I was in control.
I thought I was the only one with any consciousness, any awareness of how odd it was to be alive, to be a creature on this strange planet Earth.
I can imagine myself saying at the time that life itself was like a book borrowed from the library—something that did not belong to me and was due to expire. How silly.
All the time I wasted plucking my face at the bathroom mirror, I could have written a book. I could have learned to speak French.
On the contrary, being kidnapped was something of a secret wish of mine. At least then I’d know that I mattered to someone, that I was of value. Violence made much more sense to me than any strained conversation.
by Ali Benjamin
The plot: this is a highly political book, the story following the lives of a small family – Ethan, Zo and their young child – illuminating some of the strange circumstances of day to day life. When wife Zo gets overly involved in the #MeToo movement, husband Ethan finds himself treading water in the lake of life. This book is witty. It’s thought-provoking. It’s easy to identify with.
You can imagine a thousand lives for a person, tell any number of stories based on a single image. You can try to put words to it: who he’d been and what he’d lost, and how, exactly, those canyons of worry had been carved into his temples.
It was good until it wasn’t. All of it: The town. His marriage. Their finances. The world. Ethan can draw a line through his life: the break between before and after, then and now.
Ethan wonders if there’s a word, in some language, for the surreal sensation that your own life is a stage play that, after running smoothly for years, has veered wildly off-script.
When he was young, he’d thought that life would unfold the way the books he loved always did: from emotion to emotion, a vast stretch of grand feelings, like an endless strand of pearls laid out before him. He’d imagined moving from one bead to the next, pausing at each to feel its full contours, its weight and heft, before moving to the next pearl, and the one after that. These days, though, Ethan feels like he goes for weeks, months, even—feeling nothing whatsoever. Just an endless line of empty string in his hand, not a pearl in sight.
When did we all fall so in love with our own opinions? It felt like everyone was shouting at one another, clinging to their own hot takes, and missing all the best parts of being alive.
by Kurt Vonnegut
The plot: well, there’s no one quite like Vonnegut, and this is my favorite novel of his, recommended to me by the wonderful Tracee. Taken from GoodReads: “American Howard W. Campbell, Jr., a spy during World War II, is now on trial in Israel as a Nazi war criminal. But is he really guilty? In this brilliant book rife with true gallows humor, Vonnegut turns black and white into a chilling shade of gray with a verdict that will haunt us all.” Also check out Dead Eye Dick, another great novel by Mr. Vonnegut.
No young person on earth is so excellent in all respects as to need no uncritical love. Good Lord—as youngsters play their parts in political tragedies with casts of billions, uncritical love is the only real treasure they can look for.
“I’ve been living alone so long, everything about me’s private. I’m surprised anyone’s able to understand a word I say.”
“All people are insane,” he said. “They will do anything at any time, and God help anybody who looks for reasons.”
I was really very fond of you, to the extent that I am capable of being fond of anybody.
“Then tell me what to live for—anything at all,” she said beseechingly. “It doesn’t have to be love. Anything at all!” She gestured at objects around the shabby room, dramatizing exquisitely my own sense of the world’s being a junk shop.
So I am about to be a free man again, to wander where I please. I find the prospect nauseating.
Sorrow and Bliss
by Meg Mason
The plot: a woman named Martha is depressed; she knows there’s something wrong in her life, but can’t quite figure out what it is. Taken from a GoodReads review by PattyMacDotComma: “Watching Martha cope, work, live, have affairs, weep, and cause her family terrible worry is a lot more entertaining than seems possible. It is not a preachy-teachy book. But it does show how humans are connected to each other in spite of themselves. What you say matters.”
I was not agitated by the noise, only calmed to the point of drowsiness by the repetition of his process, and his presence—the feeling of being in a room with someone who did want to be alive.
I wanted to become someone else. I wanted to belong to anyone else. I wanted everything to be different.
I was not sick, I was highly strung. I could not self-regulate. And if I had a depressive bent, I also had an unbelievable knack for timing my dark periods with, for example, other people’s career-making exhibitions. I thrived on negative attention and if I had to break something or scream or, she would say in this case, leave a marriage to get it, I would. But, like a toddler flailing on the floor of a shop, the best thing was to ignore me.
She doesn’t want to be let go. People letting her go has become a theme. For once, she would like to be detained.
“Everything is broken and messed up and completely fine. That is what life is. It’s only the ratios that change. Usually on their own. As soon as you think that’s it, it’s going to be like this forever, they change again.”
by Margaret Atwood
The plot: (taken from GoodReads) “Part detective novel, part psychological thriller, Surfacing is the story of a talented woman artist who goes in search of her missing father on a remote island in northern Quebec. Setting out with her lover and another young couple, she soon finds herself captivated by the isolated setting, where a marriage begins to fall apart, violence and death lurk just beneath the surface, and sex becomes a catalyst for conflict and dangerous choices.”
Madness is only an amplification of what you already are.
There’s more than one way to skin a cat, my father used to say; it bothered me, I didn’t see why they would want to skin a cat even one way.
From any rational point of view I am absurd; but there are no longer any rational points of view.
The trouble some people have being German, I thought, I have being human. In a way it was stupid to be more disturbed by a dead bird than by those other things, the wars and riots and the massacres in the newspapers. But for the wars and riots there was always an explanation, people wrote books about them saying why they happened: the death of the heron was causeless, undiluted.
I have to be more careful about my memories, I have to be sure they’re my own and not the memories of other people telling me what I felt, how I acted, what I said: if the events are wrong the feelings I remember about them will be wrong too, I’ll start inventing them and there will be no way of correcting it, the ones who could help are gone.
by Russell Hoban
The plot: the story is told from two vantage points, one from a woman’s perspective and the other, from a man’s perspective. The two end up meeting, drawn together serendiptiously and uniting for an unlikely rescue mission. This book is dripping with loneliness, self-isolation and mundanity; I absolutely adored it. And I have a turtle, so I can relate.
I had sort of a bursting feeling as if my self were a wall round me that I couldn’t knock down or climb over.
But when I don’t smoke I scarcely feel as if I’m living. I don’t feel as if I’m living unless I’m killing myself. Very good. Wonderful.
It’s those times that all the other times are in between. It’s time when nothing helps and the great heavy boot of the past is planted squarely in your back and shoving you forward.
Maybe I’m just one of those people so accustomed to being miserable that they use the material of any situation to fuel their misery.
He was talking to me in a matter-of-fact way as if I really existed and was a real grown-up person who could drive vans, be at a certain place at a certain time and do what I’d undertaken to do. Incredible.
A grey and dreary morning with no hope in it. Things would always be the way they were, it said.
Ask the Dust
by John Fante
The plot: the story follows a young Italian-American man- Arturo Bandini- having just moved to Los Angeles in the 1930s who is struggling to become a famous writer. At a local diner, he meets and essentially falls in love with a young Mexican waitress named Camilla Lopez. It is love- I think?- but it’s definitely a strange-kind-of-love, that they share. This is such a great story, a largely unknown gem. I love this book and initially stumbled upon it because Charles Bukowski was deeply inspired by John Fante. It’s a short but charming read; a glimpse into the past and the life of one very strange man.
The city spread out like a Christmas tree, red and green and blue. Hello, old houses, beautiful hamburgers singing in cheap cafes, Bing Crosby singing too. She’ll treat me gently. Not those girls of my childhood, those girls of my boyhood, those girls of my university days. They frightened me, they were diffident, they refused me; but not my princess, because she will understand. She, too, has been scorned.
Are the dead restored? The books say no, the night shouts yes.
I was so miserable that I deliberately sank my fingernails into the flesh of my arm until a spot of blood appeared. It gave me great satisfaction. I was God’s most miserable creature, forced even to torturing myself. Surely upon this earth no grief was greater than mine.
They hurt me so much I could never become one of them, drove me to books, drove me within myself, drove me to run away from that Colorado town, and sometimes, Camilla, when I see their faces I feel the hurt all over again, the old ache there, and sometimes I am glad they are here, dying in the sun, uprooted, tricked by their heartlessness, the same faces, the same set, hard mouths, faces from my home town, fulfilling the emptiness of their lives under a blazing sun.
“…You are nobody, and I might have been somebody, and the road to each of us is love.”
What bizarre or strange fiction books have I left off this list?
Comment below to leave me related book suggestions – I’m always looking for new authors and new books that may strike my fancy. Have you read any of these books? Would you recommend them? Let me know in the comments.