In considering my year in reading, it occurs to me that I’ve read some really weird books this year. I like weird – books, music, films, people – it’s all good in my eyes. I only hope I don’t have really odd dreams tonight as a consequence of reliving some of these peculiar works.
The Bees by Laline Paull (Fourth Estate, 2014) was a delightfully weird book; partly because I was rushing in Waterstones (blame the child) and only managed to skim read the synopsis, I was under the impression that it was about a human society run like a beehive. I quickly realised this was a pretty serious misunderstanding; it is actually about bees. To begin with, I thought it might be a stretch for bees to sustain my interest for a whole novel, but I was extremely foolish in this assumption. Paull creates an incredibly detailed world in which typical dystopian tropes like dictators, tightly controlled minions and a fear of breaking the rules are filtered through the idea that this is actually how bees live. I never knew I was so fascinated by bees; for the duration of this book, I kept my family entertained with enthralling insights into the lives of the buzzy little pollen fiends. Miraculously, I am still married, so either this proves my husband finds bees as interesting as I now do or, most likely, he wasn’t actually listening. The Bees is a brilliantly weird book; it feels strange to be crying over a dissatisfied worker bee, but that’s part of the fun.
Coincidentally, I bought Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes (MacLehose Press, 2015) on the same shopping trip, so my mental state was clearly in a pretty strange way that day. The premise in itself is completely bizarre; in the summer of 2011, Adolf Hitler wakes up from a 70 year sleep and is baffled by the lack of a strong Nazi party and the multicultural landscape which is 21st century Germany. In a move which is pure meta, Hitler finds fame as a Hitler impersonator, leading to plenty of clever comment on how the modern media manipulates, as well as the danger inherent in not taking seriously a seemingly innocuous maniac. Although I felt that the initial conceit dwindled towards the end, Look Who’s Back is well worth reading for anyone with an interest in Hitler and his period in history.
Sometimes, I am incredibly shallow and buy books because they have beautiful covers. This usually turns out to be quite a sound decision-making process and, in the case of Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation (Fourth Estate, 2014), my superficiality was a stroke of genius. The first in the Southern Reach trilogy, Annihilation introduces a strange USA in which a large swathe of the coast is now impassable for living things: Area X. At the beginning of the trilogy, the origins of Area X are unknown but eagerly investigated by the Southern Reach, a mysterious organisation which sends expeditions into Area X to find out precisely what it is. Annihilation is the shortest and, in many ways, the best of the three books (although all are phenomenal); I really enjoyed the focus on the biologist, a member of the twelfth expedition, and the genuinely creepy atmosphere Vandermeer creates. The remainder of the trilogy, Authority and Acceptance, are equally beautiful and equally weird, and I loved them. The only thing I can really think to compare them with is Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, in its depiction of a mysterious environmental catastrophe and the few left to seek to understand it. Vandermeer’s trilogy has also inspired some beautiful fan art, which I want to have tattooed somewhere prominent.
Movie Game by Michael Ebner (Pen and Picture, 2015) was the first book I read through NetGalley, and I reviewed it back in October. Having read some other reviews and Goodreads feedback, I see that it hasn’t been universally popular but I enjoyed its vibrant weirdness; the noir-esque dialogue, the strange characters, the sense of isolation evoked throughout – I liked it.
My weird reading wasn’t limited to adult fiction, although it does seem to me that YA is still focused at opposite ends of the scale, with realistic teenage traumas at one extremity and overblown dystopia at the other. Denton Little’s Deathdate by Lance Rubin (Simon and Schuster, 2015) has a premise that is basically genius; thanks to advances in science, from an early age, everybody can find out the day they’re going to die. Aside from the existential questions this raises, Rubin plays with some particularly surreal ideas here; for example, funerals take place the day before your death date, playing out like a particularly morbid bar mitzvah. The story whizzes by, with particular pace added to the final reveals, and the whole thing is gloriously and, at times, mortifyingly weird. I would be recommending it to my students far more obsessively if it were not for the weird rash-in-intimate-areas situation which comes up frequently.
The last weird book I’ll mention here (although by no means the last weird book I read this year) is The Humans by Matt Haig (Canongate Books, 2013). At least I knew what I was getting into here; Haig’s The Last Family in England is written from the perspective of a dog, and The Possession of Mr Cave featured one of fiction’s creepiest dads, so I wasn’t exactly expecting a straightforward tale of realistic lives. The Humans features an alien taking over the body of a human and discovering he rather likes it, despite its obvious physical inferiorities. Haig’s writing is entirely unique and very entertaining, creating an enjoyably weird protagonist.