I like to think of myself as something of an authority on weirdness in fiction. As a general rule, I love it in all its forms, whether it manifests as whimsy (such as Daughter of Smoke and Bone) or horror (H.P. Lovecraft) or as something even more bizarre, such as Haruki Murakami’s 1985 novel Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.
It’s this last one that I’ve read most recently, and it got me thinking about this idea of earning your weirdness. See, I was partway through Hard-boiled Wonderland, which switches narratives each chapter break. The first narrative is a guy whose job is to use his own brain to encrypt data for clients. This is less high-tech than you’d think and mostly involves a lot of pencils and paper.
The second narrative is about a guy who has just arrived in a strange , bucolic town where gold-furred, one-horned beasts are shuttled in and out of the one gate in the town wall each day but no people are allowed to leave.
On the face of it, neither of these has jack shit to do with each other. So why intertwine them? This led to me texting SJ and saying that hey, this is a fun book so far, but I really hope that it earns the weirdness. Which was a quick and easy way for me to express my desire for the book to justify these two narratives being in lockstep with each other.
Because here’s the thing: weirdness is a solid way to hook a reader. But weirdness without purpose begins to grate after an extended period of time. As a reader, I will take a lot of shit on faith during the first few chapters of a book. But as the story wears on, I want to see that faith rewarded.
This is why I’m not a fan of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. It’s been a hot minute since I read it, but my recollection is that Gregor Samsa becomes a bug, everyone is a dickbag to him, and then he dies because an apple lodged in his carapace rotted and he got an infection that went septic.
Insofar as infections can go septic for creatures with haemolymph. But I digress.
There’s supposed to be pathos for Samsa, I think, but I never get there because it is impossible for me to relate to a giant bug and everyone else is a goddamn toolbox, so what do you do at the end of the day? For me, it means finishing the story and going, “Well. That was a thing I read.”
And see, when I talk about justification, I don’t mean there needs to be an explanation. For instance, Lovecraft never goes out of his way to explain the weird shit that happens in his stories. The justification takes the form of the characters themselves mirroring the reader’s reaction by going “HOLY SHIT THIS IS WEIRD”, which serves as a kind of lightning rod for the bizarre circumstances, grounding it in reality. It becomes relatable, because there’s a kinship with the characters due to mutual lack of understanding of outrageous circumstances.
In point of fact, all justification for weirdness that isn’t explanation tends to occur by way of characterization. The other alternative is to just let the weirdness be weird, but to ensure that the characters are as real as can be, with hopes and dreams and worries. If the character is understandable, and the character views the weirdness as normal, then the reader can find a way to normalize the weirdness through understanding the character. This is the tactic most often used for stories (like mine) that go whole motherfuckin’ hog with the weirdness.
A good example of this tactic is Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series. Thursday is, for all intents and purposes, a cop. She’s a former soldier, she’s got an old flame, she has an innate sense of right and wrong, and she feels the need to fight the Big Guys in order to protect the things that she holds dear. All of these are solid and relatable character traits. And a version of the 1980s where dodos are available as pets using clone-your-own kits and where manuscripts of great works of literature are considered literally priceless by everyone and the British Empire never fell makes complete sense to her, so, by extension, it makes sense to the reader.
At the end of the day, what you don’t want is weirdness for weirdness’s sake. It just doesn’t work. This is evident in the borderline unintelligible Neon Genesis Evangelion fanfic Spacedust and Chaos: A Requiem, where the style employed is so bizarre that it renders the entire thing essentially unreadable. A brief sample:
With mild trepidation, dark-natured cosmic tangents scissored, crossed, folded into vexatious concisions, as boundless as the sea, the spiraling rubical blood nimbus cut asunder by the long lady fingers of morning sunshine.
It gets worse from there, and since the weirdness is intrinsic to the way the story is being conveyed to the reader, which is not something evident to the characters, there is no way to use the characters to ground it. This leaves justification as the only option, but there is no reason given for the unnecessarily abstract, polysyllabic prose. The final assumption for the reader is that Chuck Williamson just really wanted to show off their ability to use a thesaurus.
So here’s the takeaway. If you’re going to write weird shit, here are (in my opinion) the best ways to pull it off:
- Explain the weird shit so the reader can understand what’s going on (as in Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World).
- Allow the characters to acknowledge that weird shit is occurring and that no explanation is available (a la H.P. Lovecraft).
- Make the characters surrounded by the weird shit relatable to real-world folk, so that their acceptance of the weird shit becomes the reader’s acceptance of the weird shit (as in Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series).
So what do you guys think? Did I miss a way to justify weirdness? Do you think it’s possible to write weird fiction without any of these kinds of justification? Can any of you decipher what exactly the hell is happening in Spacedust and Chaos: A Requiem? Scream at me in the comments!