The recent death of Katherine Dunn, author of “Geek Love,” has me thinking about Strange Fiction.
In Geek Love, Dunn writes about a family whose patriarch has played God, introducing chemicals to transform his children into circus freaks. Geek Love is one of those books that took my breath away. It was just so imaginative, its world so wholly imagined, its characters so lush and full of life and personality. I loved being in their world. What made it universal is that, at its core, the book is a coming of age tale. Sure, it’s about a girl with a pretty unique perspective. But it’s still a coming of age tale.
I’d like to do more writing where the strange come out to play. I think it’s a great feat of imagination to be able to introduce playful elements, but have them ring true and real to readers. Some of my favourite examples:
Manual Gonzalez’s title story “The Miniature Wife” is about a man who accidentally shrinks his wife and the ensuing war between them. It’s a ton of fun, but shot through with real emotion. It’s got this elasticity, where we can see the real stretch to the unreal. Here he speaks with ArtsBeat at the New York Times about how he comes up with ideas and how he finds a voice for the off-beat.
I think all the time about the haunting beauty of Karen Russell’s Reeling for the Empire, a story of women who sell themselves into servitude at a mill, thinking they’ll be helping their destitute families. Yet when they finally arrive at the mill, they’re horrified to discover that they’re quickly turning into silk worms whose thread matches their moods. It’s an absolutely brilliant piece, so vivid in its images, so profound in its story of revenge and redemption.
One of the best books I read in 2015 was Julia Elliott’s collection of short stories, “The Wilds.” In it, she tells the story of a high-end spa whose occupants sit idle as their paradise is overrun with terrorists. It’s not that the story itself is fantastical, it’s that the story it tells has been stretched to its limits. I’m drawn to Elliott’s rich descriptions, to the way she juxtaposes the vapidness of the hopes and dreams of the spa-goers with the sparseness of thought given to the hopes and dreams of the militias and pirates stalking the place.
I haven’t read much Kelly Link, but she’s now top of my list! She speaks in this Masters Review interview about how she grounds her fantastical work in details, how she thinks about stories by asking questions that seem out of this world: “How can I tell a ghost story on a space ship? What informs a ghost story if the people in it are isolated in every possible way from their own history, their own families, and the natural world?”
The editors of Masters Review are also fans.
What I love about strange fiction is that it allows us to examine real issues in ways that we can’t in everyday life. one of the wonderful things about fiction is that it can surpass the bounds of reality, and I love that so many writers are taking advantage of that, and being recognized for it. When Kelly Link is writing about teenagers with haunted, robotic Ghost Boyfriends, she’s also writing about what it is like to come of age, to begin to carve out some part of the world for yourself. When Kevin Brockmeier is writing about the sky slowly lower, it’s also a way to address death.
This is something I’m going to try over the next while – pushing my stories beyond what seems possible.