By Chelsea Haith
An octopus living in a New York apartment. A woman inviting an ant colony to inhabit her bones. A man laying salmon eggs in his faeces. Bizarro fiction caters to a generation of adults who grew up trawling the cult films section in backwater-town video rental stores, wondering if they’d ever fit in. It’s hipster, it’s anti-capitalist and it’s obsessed with the apocalypse. What more could you possibly want?
The central conviction of Bizarro fiction is that nothing is too strange. There seems to be a preoccupation with the apocalypse and the satirical nature of many of the works indicates that this is a literary movement that has gone beyond the bounds of sci-fi and fantasy, with its location in the present. In the spirit of Kurt Vonnegut and William S. Burroughs, the Bizarro authors seem to be speaking for a generation of Americans who find themselves living in what may well be a modern dystopia.
“When you look at what people are eating, the way that people are required to live, and the state of America for the past decade, it makes sense that there’s a feeling that it’s the end, because you’re watching a major world super power transform into a paranoid, unstable being.” – Cameron Pierce, editor of Lazy Fascist Press
It is not a popular position to hold or to write about, particularly for those living inside the capitalist, hyper-patriotic, pseudo-democracy of the United States, but as a literary movement it has been growing in strength since the late 1990s. The Bizarro fiction publisher Eraserhead Press was started in 1999 as a bet between a few friends. Almost two decades later, Eraserhead Press is still running as an independent publisher, keeping alive the minds and souls of the Bizarro fiction writing community, most of whom lives in Portland, Oregon.
“Once I had discovered Bizarro, I felt that I had found a home both as a reader and a writer,” explained the editor of Lazy Fascist Press and Bizarro author Cameron Pierce. After recently relocating to Portland to live on the pulse of Bizarro fiction, Pierce visited Rhodes University for just over a month from early February to mid-March 2015 as part of the Mellon Writer in Residence fellowship. Here he spent some time with the students in the MA in Creative Writing programme headed up by Robert Berold and Paul Wessels, encouraging the students to allow themselves to go beyond what Wessels called “[. . .] our authoritarian, colonial past which subjugates our consciousness in a prison of unrelenting realism.”
“We felt that his depth of involvement in these literary movements equipped him to assist us in addressing a recurring problem with students who enrol for our course only to be crippled by the fear of being overwhelmed by an exuberant imagination,” Wessels said, explaining Pierce’s role and value to the MA programme.
Pierce’s imprint Lazy Fascist Press is currently publishing work that falls into the crossover space between Bizarro and Alt Lit. He explained that he publishes whatever he thinks is worthwhile and what the mainstream publishers think is “just too weird.”
When asked whether she thought Bizarro has developed as a way of understanding our dystopian existence, South African author Lauren Beukes said that Bizarro fiction has stemmed from a psychological location she herself knows all too well. “It’s too hard to talk about the real issues. We have issue fatigue,” she said. “It’s the same if we look at what’s happening in America, black kids getting shot by cops, it’s insane and exhausting. So we use twisty fiction as a distorting mirror that shows the truth more clearly.”
Bizarro embraces the extremes of the imagination and uses tropes like the love story, humour, anthropomorphism and the apocalypse, amongst others, to explore our understanding of a world in which reality is occasionally stranger than fiction.
So, what’s weirder than a haunted vagina?
Listen to Pierce read an extract from his collection ‘Our love will go the way of the salmon’:
All images sourced from Lazy Fascist Press with the consent of editor Cameron Pierce.