The world is full of decidedly odd literature. The definition of “odd” of course varies from person to person, as do perceptions of what is good and what is a waste of perfectly good printer ink and innocent trees. As anyone studying literature will invariably do at some point, I’m learning how insanely subjective the whole business is—we can be as academic as we like about it, but in the end some readers/viewers/players will find a piece “works” for them and some simply will not. This is especially the case with genres like surrealism, magical realism, stream of consciousness and oh-it-doesn’t-have-to-make-sense-it’s-high-art-don’t-you-see kind of pieces, or things that just have a notable “odd” vibe to them as an artistic decision. The question is, what exactly makes that “odd” work for some people and when does it stop being artsy and just be… odd?
I find I’m a hit or miss case with these things, to be honest. Generally, regardless of how much magic it contains outright, I prefer a degree of sense to apply to my fiction whether it’s in content or structure. I’m perfectly open to read and watch (and even play, when I can work up the mental energy) things that are surreal, off-kilter, quirky or just all-out bizarre. Sometimes abstract oddity will capture my heart, sometimes it will charm me enough to get me to roll with it, and sometimes it just leaves me kind of squinting awkwardly at the page or screen.
Moonrise Kingdom, for example, is a very quirky movie. It’s deliberately off-kilter and heavily stylised, creating a detached bizarre sort of vibe. The subject matter makes you sit back and blink too—two kids deciding to run away together and get married, living in the wilderness of their island home—but it’s presented so matter-of-factly by the young characters and the story itself that you just kind of have to accept it. I don’t usually watch exceedingly quirky films, but this was an example of a “just roll with it” case, for me: it was adorable, for one thing, but also so clearly stylised with its use of colour palette and shot type and acting that I could enjoy it as an art piece.
Moonrise Kingdom almost had a magical realism vibe to it, which is a genre that inspires the “????” method of reading analysis more than any other I’ve read. And I’ve read a lot of it—my beautifully eccentric year twelve English teacher assigned it and sent us all on a journey to free our minds. My mind was certainly freed, and occasionally tangled into knots and tossed into the sea. The key to magical realism is including a magical or fantastical element and then treating it as if it’s an ordinary part of the everyday world. It nudges the line of fantasy, but the key defining feature is people in fantasy acknowledge that magic is special or weird or not normal, whereas in magical realism it’s more or less shrugged off, leading to a weird dreamlike tone for most stories.
Like Light Is Like Water by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which is about a pair of young brothers breaking the bulbs in their apartment and going sailing on a sea of light. It could be passed off as a trip into the kids’ imaginations, but at the end people drown in light, which floods and pours out of the building with the quality of water. Now that is rather odd. But I liked the story itself enough that I not only forgave it, I enjoyed it. Other bizarre short stories I am less kind to.
Sleep by Haruki Murakami, for example, is the story of a housewife that stops sleeping. It’s not insomnia, she tells us, because she had that in her early twenties and this is different. She isn’t tired, simply doesn’t need to sleep anymore. This all occurs after a dream (?) she has where a strange old man pours water over her feet. She seizes her newly opened up life by reading Anna Karenina three times and getting fit, but otherwise rolls through the motions of each day with a robotic sense of lack of purpose. This is described and philosophised upon for about 18 pages. One night, while parked and staring at the sea as she’s taken to doing, some people come and start knocking her car, and the story ends in a fit of her panic.
…Is she okay? Is this a metaphor for something?? Am I uncultured swine for not having it speak to me?? Give me answers, damn you, little artsy post-modernist book!
Why do I have a problem with the surreal-ness of a sleepless housewife’s philosophy and not a bunch of kids drowning in light that behaves like liquid? They make about as much sense as each other. What makes me like Moonrise Kingdom and crinkle my nose at other deliberately “quirky” films? It’s a strange business, and a dangerous field to get into if you’re making stuff that’s overtly odd because it’s all so subjective. The reader is a fickle being, and some people will nod and smile at your nonsensical art while others fling it across the room in disgust (note: this also applies to visual art, where people have fruit on their faces and clocks melt and no one’s quite sure what to do about it except nod and try to look scholarly).
For me, I think, I had issues with Sleep vs Light Is Like Water because the former felt like it didn’t really tell me anything. Yeah, it gave me an insight into the life of this woman and what she did when she didn’t sleep, but by the end it felt like I’d gotten to know her just so I could wonder if she was dead or not. I’m okay with works leaving me with questions and making me think, but this just ticked me off. Why couldn’t we have had less rambling and more words gone into the climax, instead of snapping the story off with the first real action we saw? It felt disjointed and empty. And if there was some great symbolism about society or housewifery or life and death in there, I’m afraid I missed it, and thus it fell flat.
Maybe I liked Light Is Like Water better because it was simply fun, playing with words as well as the ideas that construct the world we know and making it just odd enough to be interesting, and in the end saying something about the power of belief. Maybe? Or how we have to learn to swim even if we don’t live by water in case we get a light flood, a symbol for being prepared? You know what, I have no idea. Maybe I simply liked the writing style more (magical realism, especially Marquez and Isabelle Allende, if you’re looking for writers to follow, is typically full of gorgeous, lush descriptive prose and you know I’m a sucker for that) or that it was more succinct and seemed to have an actual destination in mind. I’ll never really know, but that’s a kind of confusion I’m content with.
I don’t have a problem with a character seeing everyone around them melt if it’s a metaphor for getting apathetic as you grow up, or something. If it says something, and it doesn’t have to be world-shattering or super-duper poignant, but something, then I don’t really mind how out-there it gets to say it. Even if it just manages to tell me a story I’m interested in. If it says nothing then I feel like I’ve wasted however many minutes or hours of my time and attention.
Even this blog post—I’m trying to say something. I’m trying to tell you a story about my experience with the general realm of oddity, and make you wonder yourself what exactly makes odd work sometimes and not others. You could, of course, disagree with me strongly on all points I’ve discussed, and that’s fine too, as long as you feel like, as a reader, you’ve taken something away from the piece other than a sense of annoyed confusion. That should be the goal of any writing, whether it’s creative or nonfictional or makes about as much sense as a hat full of cars.
Sadly, however we might nod our heads at the above statement, it all comes down to the slippery beast of subjectivity. There’s really no right answer as to what makes odd good or bad, and this post has come in a dreamlike loop. At least all the words were all in the right order.