Bizarro in the Western Canon: Why Weird Doesn’t Equal Trash

Bizarro fiction is a genre I deeply respect. Some of the older stories featured in Esoteric Sausage are directly bizarro, while others are closer to horror. I don’t, like many of my writer friends out there, consider myself strictly a “Bizarro” writer, but it is the genre which truly inspired me to embrace my penchant for weirdness in writing.

Nevertheless, Bizarro hasn’t entirely expanded past a cult following. You won’t find a Bizarro section in your local bookstore, and certain literary snobs tend to dismiss it as mere pulp.

Some controversial voices (I’m thinking of one in particular, who shall remained unnamed here) associated with Bizarro have publically criticized the efforts of Eraserhead Press and Bizarrocon for insufficiently embracing strategies intended push Bizarro into the mainstream. I disagree. In my opinion, Bizarro shouldn’t worry about mainstream exposure. The underground element is one of the coolest aspects of the genre, and efforts to make it otherwise demonstrates a certain misunderstanding of the genre. Eraserhead and the other bizarro presses seem to be doing just fine, thank you.

But I digress. More germane to this point is the fact that I disagree with is the snobbish dismissal of Bizarro as “mere” pulp. While some of it is of pulp quality (and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing), some Bizarro-oriented and Bizarro-inspired releases continue in the extensive and largely overlooked tradition of utter strangeness in literary classics. It’s anyone’s guess, of course, whether a work of Bizarro will one day obtain canonical status. The world of literatary recognition has long been unpredictable, even before the advent of universal access to publication. But Bizarro elements have definitely made it into the canon more than once.

Below are five possible classic “precursors” to Bizarro presented to prove that weirdness doesn’t automatically bar fiction from canonical status. This list may have a second part follow-up in the future. I would also like to point out that I am by no means a Bizarro “expert” or “veteran.” Like everything else I post here, these are just my causal observations and opinions.

Gargantua and Pantagruel is just about as strange as literature gets, and it’s taught in college Renaissance (or “Early Modern,” whichever you prefer) courses all over the world. While I’ve attempted many a foray into this long and celebrated work, I haven’t come close to finishing it (I’ve definitely read more about this book than the book itself). Nevertheless, I’ve read enough to taste the random narrative digressions, penis jokes, and inversions of accepted norms Rabelais drowns the reader in. And drinking. There is tons of drinking.

And, obviously, there is Gulliver’s Travels. This one used to even appear in the highschool curriculum along with The Great Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird (God I hate that book). I’ve only read excerpts from this one in various college courses, so Gulliver’s Travels is more like disconnected memories of a strange dream to me. I remember islands of strange, half-human creatues, bodily transformations, and a biting satirical voice. It doesn’t get much more bizarro than this.

I am absolutely in love with this book. Tristram Shandy may not evoke Bizarro at first flush, since it tends to remain grounded in a twisted sort of realism (albiet realism nonetheless), but the narrative definitely presaged the penchant for structural experiment and nonlinearity so integral to the newer, more “philosophically inclined” Bizarro publications. Even though this book is a product of the eighteenth century, it reads much closer to a long version of Donald Barthelme than Daniel Defoe. This celebrated classic happens to be a Bizarro-worthy wellspring of weirdness, well deserving of appreciation by Bizarro fans.

And who could forget Maldoror? Lautreamont’s masterpiece may be associated with French decadent literature more than with the western canon, but I predict a future of deeper acceptance and academic appreciation for this slowly burgeoning depiction of evil. This is unlike any book you have ever read, and more than repays the attention its various cruelties and blasphemies demand. One could easily imagine this book coming from a Bizarro press. Already considered the precursor to surrealism, it readily fits into horror-oriented bizarro with unsettling ease.

Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers has been argued to owe its semi-classic status to Jean-Paul Sartre’s wonderful book-lenght analysis of Genet more than to Genet’s own literary abilities. I disagree, even though Bataille and Sartre both point out Genet’s inability to “communicate” (whatever the hell that means). Genet resides in a prison cell at the time of writing. He represents his surroundings in a fluid mix of sexually-charged fantasy while steadily plunging into utter darkness. While Bizarro, strangely enough, tends to be more ethically-minded than Genet, Bizarro shares a deep relation to hallucinatory dream elements in which Our Lady of the Flowers revels without shame. Although Genet may be the furthest from Bizarro on this list, I would happily bet more than one Bizarro fan would readily identify an atmospheric affinity here shared with their beloved Bizarro favorites.

As I stated, this list is absolutely incomplete. What is your favorite Bizarro precursor? Answer in the comments below, and it might appear in Part 2 of this list.

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