Wed
Aug 20 2008 11:26am

The Weirdest Book in the World

For a long time I thought the weirdest book in the world was Robert Sheckley’s Mindswap, in which a retiring college professor does a holiday mind swap with a colleague on Mars, only to find when he gets there that the colleague doesn’t exist and his own body back on Earth has disappeared—and things get weirder from there on, and don’t stop being weird by the end of the book. Then I discovered R.A. Lafferty and thought nobody could ever be weirder.

In 1995, Lafferty lost his title. Robert Reed wrote An Exaltation of Larks, which really did seem to be the weirdest book in the world, making Sheckley and Lafferty seem positively normal in comparison.

Robert Reed is an absolutely brilliant writer. I think he may well be the greatest living writer of short SF, edging out Ted Chiang by a nose. Stories like “A Plague of Life” and “Veritas” are why I buy SF magazines. Gardner Dozois has said he could publish a “Best Robert Reed of the Year” collection every year. He’s phenomenally wonderful, up to about 10,000 words. After that it’s as if you can hear him thinking, “Oh. Better throw in something else now. Something new.” Sometimes this works really well, as in Sister Alice and Marrow, where the recomplications just make the books better. Other times, as in Down the Bright Way, you find yourself thinking at the recomplications, “You know, this might have been enough for any normal person?” Then there’s An Exaltation of Larks, which is brilliantly written, fascinating, and essentially becomes a new genre every 10,000 words. It starts off on a college campus with weird things happening, and whenever you think you have some idea what’s going on, you just don’t. There’s a section where the characters are alien turtles floating in space. It has been, for more than a decade, the indisputable weirdest book in the house.

But I may have just read something that beats it for sheer unadulterated oddity.

Kathleen Norris (1880-1966) was an American “women’s writer” of the early twentieth century. Her novels are odd romances set in an era after divorce but before divorce was acceptable, after automobiles but before air conditioning and penicillin. To someone used to Victorian novels and modern ones, they have a fascinating level of morality—in one of them, someone lusts in his heart and is falsely accused of murder and, eventually exculpated, he dies of TB caught in prison. Rich people have interesting trouble passing through eyes of needles. Adultery is a perpetual problem. Love is not enough, and neither is money.

I read half a dozen of Norris’s books from the library, just for fun. (I do this sometimes.) The last one I randomly picked off the shelf was Through a Glass Darkly, which is science fiction and, you guessed it, my new contender for the weirdest book in the world.

There’s a utopian world which is an alternate America that didn’t fight the Spanish/American war and which has always made peace ever since. It’s socialist to the point of having free food for everyone, and in a way that clearly grows out of Norris’s experience of having lived through the Depression writing cheerful books about rich people’s love troubles. This alternate world also happens to be Heaven, or one of the Heavens—there are at least seven, as everyone knows. People are born and die there, but people also arrive there from our world when they have died here in a particularly good way. Our hero, a young trainee doctor, turns up there after having died heroically in the battle of Midway. He is shown around in a typical mainstream-writer-writes-utopia visitor way, having how everything works explained to him.

He then sets out to practice as a doctor, his training being miraculously complete. (Don’t ask.) He falls in love with a married woman and angsts about this at great length. Then he falls in love with and gets engaged to her daughter. The daughter finds out about the mother and allows herself to be swept away in a flood (where she’s rescuing some kids) and drowns, and is reborn in our world. There she grows up in New York and becomes a nurse, is seduced and marries someone else to give her baby a name. In the end she realises she loves the someone else after all.

That’s it. Two-thirds of the book takes place in the ideal otherworld, and one third in our world. There’s no frame closure.

If you have contenders for books weirder than this, do let me know.

38 comments
Bob Bruhin
1. Bob Bruhin
You've, like, read Delaney, yes? How about Dick?

Is this book really wierder than Dahlgren?
Bob Bruhin
2. The Book Keeper
Give the *Codex Seraphinianus* a try sometime. Or, perhaps, if it's the right day, Danielewski's *House of Leaves*. Enjoy.
Bob Bruhin
3. Dan Blum
That concept is kind of similar to the one in Astrid Lindgren's The Brothers Lionheart, but I wouldn't nominate that as being particularly weird.

There's Knight's Humpty Dumpty: An Oval. Either it was very weird or I had a critical failure of understanding, or possibly both.

(By the way, the protagonist of Mindswap is not a retired professor. He's young - in his thirties but in a society where that is apparently a extension of the teenage years - and has a boring factory job.)
Stephanie Chaplin
4. Plate
@Bob Bruhin
I am quite sure it is impossible to be weirder than Dahlgren.
Which I am glad for -- I've never been so unsure as to why I liked a book.
Dan Miller
5. meelar
The weirdest book of all time is without a doubt the Illuminatus trilogy. If you haven't read them, they're really great, but hard to get through.
Jo Walton
6. bluejo
I don't find either _Dhalgren_ (note spelling) or the Illuminatus! books weird in the least.

Really. Go and read _An Exaltation of Larks_, or _Nine Hundred Grandmothers_.
Clifton Royston
7. CliftonR
The Illuminatus books aren't especially weird, just very satirical. Actually, R.A. Wilson outdid them himself for weirdness; the third volume of the Schrodinger's Cat trilogy is far stranger than anything in Illuminatus.

Dhalgren is a favorite of mine, and aside from the looped and fragmented narrative structure, I don't find it too odd.

Jo, can you clarify why you find Nine Hundred Grandmothers so weird? To me, that book seems relatively less strange than most Lafferty's writing; maybe it's the short story form which makes the weirdness seem more expectable, or maybe it's just that I've been rereading those stories so long. Annals of Klepsis or 'The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeney' in Apocalypses - now those are much odder Lafferty. (Reefs of Earth or The Devil is Dead fall somewhere in between.)
Clifton Royston
8. CliftonR
If at least one main character is dead, but continues to interact with the rest of the characters anyway, it might be a Lafferty novel.
Bruce Cohen
9. SpeakerToManagers
Aha, at last. For a couple of weeks now, Jo, I've been reading your posts at tor.com and asking myself, "How does it happen that she has almost exactly the same taste I do in SF (not quite so much in fantasy)? Surely this can't go on." And it finally didn't. I have read a lot of Lafferty and agree with you completely about the weirdness of Nine Hundred Grandmothers (though I think there are still weirder Lafferty stories, frex The World as Will and Wallpaper, or Flaming Ducks and Giant Bread), and I like some of Robert Reed's books (I like Sister Alice very much, but I'm not sure about Marrow). An Excess of Larks, however, was IMHO too silly to be weird. I know, Lafferty can be incredibly silly too, but somehow there's a difference there, for me. Maybe it was the turtle. Or maybe because it reminded me too much of R. F. Nelson's Then Beggars Could Ride, which really torqued me off when I read it, because he pulled a switch at the end and decided that a really oppressive regime was utopia.
Wesley Osam
10. Wesley
Well, sticking to books that are weird because the writers are coming from some slightly alternate mental universe, rather than books (like Lafferty's) that are weird on purpose, of which there are many...

My favorite weird book is Cleek: The Man of the Forty Faces by Thomas Hanshew. It's a fixup novel of short mystery stories, but arguably counts as SF (the hero has an odd superpower). It may give you some idea of the oddness of this book when I tell you that in one story the murder weapon is a sneezing lion.

This is an actual quote from one of the sequels:

“What’s that? What’s that?” Cleek’s voice flicked like the crack of a whip. “Good God! Dancing round in circles? His mouth open? His tongue hanging out? His fingers thrust into his nostrils? Was that what you said?”

“Yes. Why? Do you see anything promising in that fact, Cleek? It seems to excite you.”


Also: I read a lot of Doctor Who tie-in novels, back when they were aimed at adults. Sometimes they really went off the rails. I still vividly remember Combat Rock by Mick Lewis, a 2nd Doctor novel in which the villain kills tourists with spring-loaded mummies that shoot poisonous snakes from their mouths.

And then there was Atom Bomb Blues by Andrew Cartmel, a 7th Doctor book that had an alternate universe Manhattan Project, and Japanese agents in color-coordinated zoot suits, and a buffoonish security officer based for no obvious reason on Dashiell Hammett, and a random encounter with Duke Ellington, and a cameo by an alien named Zorg who adds a "z" whenever he says anyone's name. And a beatnik. And the Doctor tricks the security guy into thinking he's eaten peyote, also for no obvious reason... and his companion takes fish oil pills that give her superhuman mathematical skills, and she's wearing a cowgirl outfit because she thought the TARDIS was going to the Alamo... I am still not convinced that I did not hallucinate this book.
Ray Radlein
11. RayRadlein
I'll also put in a nod for Lafferty's Annals of Klepsis, as well as Zelazny's Creatures of Light and Darkness (although, as some have pointed out, there should perhaps be a distinction made between novels written deliberately to be weird vs. novels that seem to have wound up that way all on their own).

I have Exaltation, but never got a chance to read it before my brain fell apart.
Jo Walton
12. bluejo
Wesley: that one definitely gets points for weirder than I could imagine. Wow.
Moshe Feder
13. Moshe
I reviewed An Exaltation of Larks for Asimov's at the time of its publication. I didn't so much think of it as weird as frustrating, because I thought it could easily have been a much better book. It's the kind of book that makes a reviewer wish he were an editor. (Which, of course, is exactly what happened to me.)

Here's an excerpt from my review:
As long as Reed focuses on his student protagonists and their college environment, he’s perfect. Having worked on a college paper in the 70s myself, I felt right at home.

His handling of the Big Turtle isn’t nearly as convincing, especially when explanations are being offered. He might have done better to put a less comic-bookish icon at the center of his story. It doesn’t help that the Turtle’s dialogue tends to the cutesy and coy. All this slows down our acceptance of the cosmic significance of what’s going on.

There are other points as well when the book’s level of realism seems to swerve to the slightly cartoonish and back again; call it a blurring of the universe of discourse, a fluctuation in rhetorical voltage. As a result, plot events take on an arbitrary, unbelievable quality that leaks narrative power like a short circuit.

Still, Jesse’s participation in the Turtle’s manhunt, and what we see along the way, engages us and is often surprising, with the biggest surprise rightly saved for the very end. That ending, thanks to Reed’s skill in building the realistic characters, is genuinely moving.

I don’t need to have read any of Reed’s earlier books -- which got good notices -- to see that he’s a talented writer, wherever this book may fall among them. It’s clear he’s already firmly in control of character and setting. If he can achieve the same control of tone and level of discourse, nothing can stop him.
I've never had a chance to read any of the other ten of Reed's novels, nor the novella that won the Hugo last year, but I'd like to. He's an interesting and talented writer.
Bob Bruhin
14. ConradA
When I saw this posting linked somewhere on the Web, I said to myself, well let us see if this site has become more than a Tor shill - well, Exaltation of Larks is surprise, surprise a Tor title.

So just change the title of the post to the weirdest Tor book in the World pretty please...
Patrick Nielsen Hayden
15. pnh
Number of Jo Walton posts on Tor.com: 43

Number of Jo Walton posts focusing on a particular Tor author or title: 4

For that matter, did you notice that the post you're commenting on wasn't ultimately about the Robert Reed novel?

I do realize that anything called Tor.com is inevitably going to be suspected of being nothing but a promotional vehicle for Tor. On the other hand, if it means we try extra-hard to discuss the rest of the field, that's a win. My actual worry is that good stuff from Tor will get shorted because we're bending over backwards. By any measure, Tor publishes somewhat more than 4/43rds of the interesting books in SF.
Bob Bruhin
16. Matt Jarpe
No matter how weird the book, someone will always find a weirder one. The world is full of crazy people and an alarming percentage of them want to write books for some reason. We're really talking about the weirdest book that still means something.

My nominee is "The Dogs of Babel" by Carolyn Parkhurst. A linguistics professor's wife dies, and the only witness is her dog. The professor's plan to solve the mystery is to teach the dog to speak. This leads him to a secret society bent on completing a convicted animal abuser's evil research program to surgically alter dogs and give them the power of speech.

Weird, yes, but the things that book has to say about grief and loss and love and dogs moved me like few other books have. Worth the weirdness.
Bob Bruhin
17. Paul Sparks
I think you have to add Jonathan Carroll to the mix.
Bob Bruhin
18. Mike Brotherton
I've been a big fan of Robert Reed for years and enjoyed LARKS very much. I also agree with Moshe that the college environment felt perfect and that parts were uneven in tone. Great ride, overall.

I may have to check out the other suggestions here. I don't like weird for the sake of weird, but great weird is very memorable and worth seeking out.
Bob Bruhin
19. smonkey
Gravity's Rainbow? anyone?

Pynchon at his oddest. I mean...a guy that has to have sex where bombs are going to fall because of the experiments done on him as a child? (or do bombs fall where he's had sex?)

Giant squid? Black African nazi paratroopers?

A love boat full of nazis, underage whores, movie directors and spies?

maybe not the weirdest ever but really really weird.
Christine Quinones
20. bugsybanana
Oh, I got one for you: Russell Greenan's It Happened in Boston? Art forgery, serial killing, and the usurpation of God Himself. My copy was marketed as a standard mystery, but I haven't read anything stranger, and my exposure to Lafferty was later.
Andrea Leistra
21. aleistra
What about Michael Marshall Smith's Only Forward? Like the Norris, (which I hadn't even heard of, much less read) it features an abrupt worldshift partway through, so that just when you're getting used to the initial weirdness (a fragmented society with bizarre self-governing Neighborhoods, which is funny and a romp and very strange), it twists everything sideways through multiple dimensions and acquires entirely new levels of Weird (and it gets a great deal bleaker, which is largely why I haven't reread it. My tolerance for bleak isn't what it once was.)
Jo Walton
22. bluejo
CliftonR: _Nine Hundred Grandmothers_ is notable for being the first thing ever I couldn't read straight through. I agree other Lafferty is weirder, but I'll never forget that first hit.

Aleistra: I've also only read _Only Forward_ once, and for very much the same reasons. It turned into horror. Reading these suggestions is making me think that the thing really weird books do is make you stop and think "Hang on, did it really say that or did I fall asleep and dream it?"
Bob Bruhin
23. Serdar
I'm amazed no one has mentioned William Burroughs, but maybe only because producing weird books when you're stoned out of your mind seems more like an inevitability than a creative process.
Bob Bruhin
24. jeffdavis
My vote would be for The Troika by Stepan Chapman. The three main characters are an old woman, a brontosaurus and a Jeep. They are crossing an endless desert. Sometimes they switch bodies with one another. It's the kind of book that tries too hard to be weird; I didn't like it. I had the same experience with Steve Aylett's Lint, in which each sentence tries to outdo every other sentence in sheer bizarreness; the result is exhausting.

Serdar @ 23: I think it's easy to forget about how weird William Burroughs' books are because he returns obsessively to the same narrow set of images and themes. After a while you get used to the way his imagination works. Strangely, the repetition works in his favor. Bruce Sterling put it best: "Burroughs is like a drunk who found a sharpened screwdriver in the gutter. His work is claptrap, but it’s marvellous claptrap. So that gives it a weird demented Bohemian majesty."
Bob Bruhin
25. BeauW
'Nog' by Rudolf Wurlitzer has to be the weirdest book ever writen- not so much for the story but for the profound mental disorientation that envelopes the reader. I've read quite a few of the other books nominated here, but I'd have to vote for 'Nog'.

'Masque of a Savage Mandarin' by Philip Bedford Robinson is another highly weird novel that blew my young mind, though not in such a psychotropic way as 'Nog'.
andrew brady
26. mekon
@19 - smonkey

this is my first post. i've no idea how relatively well-read i am in terms of sci-fi, but Gravity's Rainbow is something that has been on my 'unread radar' for a while

your excellent summary sums up why I joined this site..cheers!
Bob Bruhin
27. that_guy
what, nobody mentioned Flann O'Brian yet? At Swim Two Birds? I found that quite weird, really.

And right now I'm trying to think of the title of something else at the back of my mind .. ah yes, a never-filmed movie script by David Lynch and Mark Frost called "One Saliva Bubble". extremely .. strange. But no wonder, what with David Lynch being involved.
Lauren Jones
28. Caiphana
*nods at The Book Keeper*

The House of Leaves. Thing's just weird for weirdness's sake.
Meagan Leathers
29. seventythousandfathoms
So far, China Mieville's Perdido Street Station is the weirdest book I have read - or The Scar. I will definitely be checking out all the books you and others have suggested.
Bob Bruhin
30. Jim Henry
I've just finished re-reading If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino; not sf, but plenty weird in its self-referential narrative structure.

It's been a long time since I read it, but maybe Sheckley's Options is even weirder than Mindswap.

The Troika might be the weirdest book I've ever read, or the weirdest I've ever finished. Not sure if I liked it well enough to read it again, but I've kept it around just in case.

Perdido Street Station and the other Mieville novels have wonderfully weird worldbuilding, but on most other levels (narrative structure, plot) they're pretty straightforward. Hal Duncan's Vellum combines Mieville-level worldbuilding weirdness with Calvino-level narrative structure weirdness, plus character-identification-confusion weirdness that I can't think of another exemplar for, but I still don't think I would rank it among the weirdest books ever.

An Exaltation of Larks is the only one of Robert Reed's books where I just didn't understand what was going on, for about the last third. I agree he's one of the best short fiction writers currently; if he stopped writing, half of my reason for subscribing to Asimov's and F&SF would be gone.

Ray Vukcevich is maybe the only living short fiction writer who comes close to Lafferty for consistent weirdness. I don't think he matches him, though.
Bob Bruhin
31. vilstef
I've read a number of Lafferty short stories, but I'd have to say my favorite of any length by him is the very odd The Devil is Dead. Anything I have to say would not do justice to the weirdness there.

In another area, I'd cite the movie of The Tin Drum. It's based on a novel by Gunter Grass (which I have never read) and if it is true to the book and the translation is readable-there is a truly weird book.

The movie starts with Oscar, who is born in the late 20s in Nazi Germany and at the age of three decides he is not going to grow anymore. He falls down the cellar and stops growing.

He has a voice which can break glass, and a fixation on a toy tin drum. He keeps breaking the drums and is a huge pain until it's replaced.

One of the really great scenes in the film takes place at a Nazi rally. There is a military band playing marches. Oscar hits off beats with his drum and in minutes, the march is transformed to a waltz, and the whole rally is dancing.

In this movie, it keeps moving from weird to weirder. Everytime you think they've maxed the weirdness, you get shown more.
Corina St. Martin
32. Corina
Years ago I read "Kingdom's of the Wall" by Robert Silverburg. It had a lot of really interesting and creepy plot lines, the ending left a lot to be desired though. But this one's my weird book pick.
Zack Weinberg
33. zwol
I haven't read most of the books in this thread so I don't know how they measure up, but I'll nominate Patricia McKillip's Fool's Run and Salvador Plascencia's The People of Paper for profoundly weird yet good.

Speaking of McKillip - Corina: If you liked the basic concept of Kingdoms of the Wall but found the ending disappointing, McKillip's Moon-Flash does the same thing only better. Much better. Also much less weird. (Note: the book currently available by that title is an omnibus of the original book by that title and its sequel. The sequel is not as good, but it's still good.)
Corina St. Martin
34. Corina
Thanks zwol, I'll definitely check it out. I really did enjoy most of Kingdoms of the Wall, but man, that area where people became attached to the big slug thing, uggh. The vision of that scene has stuck in my head all this time. LOL
Zack Weinberg
35. zwol
With you all the way on the big slug thing.
Corina St. Martin
36. Corina
It just dawned on me, that might be the beginning of my fear of huge worm type creatures, like in the newer King Kong. I couldn't deal with that scene. We should begin another post on creatures that scare us and why. Hmm
Bob Bruhin
37. nquixote
Dhalgren.
Bob Bruhin
38. koonfasa
do you guys read comics?
Coz I like Transmetropolitan, or you could check out the other works from Warren Ellis. Or Grant Morrison's Invisibles, or Doom Patrol. And Alan Moore's Top 10, Tom Strong, and Promethea are spectacular reads, but I don't know how weird they are in comparison. Only read House of Leaves, and I love those comic titles more.

Thanks for the suggestions. Look forward to trying them out.

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