What is the weirdest book in the history of English literature?
April 20, 2016 7:49 PM   Subscribe

It could be a novel, a non-fiction book, a diary, poem or play. Bonus question: how about the weirdest book from other global literary traditions?
posted by dontjumplarry to Writing & Language (50 answers total) 88 users marked this as a favorite
Do you have any particular definition of "weird" in mind?
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 7:58 PM on April 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

Also: English as in English-language, or as in the country specifically?

If the former, I'll throw out House of Leaves as a starting bid, although I have a suspicion others will be able to top that.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:03 PM on April 20, 2016 [9 favorites]

Best answer: I don't necessarily agree with a lot of this youtube video, but I happened to watch it last night, and it's a start.
They list:

10 - The Book of Soyga

9 - Codex Seraphinianus

8 - Hypnerotomachia Poliphili

7 - The Oera Linda Book

6 - The Ripley Scrolls

5 - The Smithfield Decretals
PG-13 illustration from the Smithfield Decretals : http://i.imgur.com/OQv3rzj.jpg

4 - The Rohonc Codex

3 - The Red Book

2 - Prodigiorum ac ostentorum chronicon

1 - The Voynich Manuscript
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 8:07 PM on April 20, 2016 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Another bid that won't win: The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro is both in English and English (from England). It's all written like a dream. Scenes and locations change abruptly, people become other people, the premise of things that are happening changes, etc.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:08 PM on April 20, 2016 [3 favorites]

Seconding House of Leaves. I'm halfway through this thing and it is hands down one of the weirdest, creepiest, and freaky books I've ever read. It's also one of those that I could probably read over and over and keep finding new things.
posted by floweredfish at 8:08 PM on April 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Do you have any particular definition of "weird" in mind?

Weird in the same way that the Voynich manuscript, or Piranesi's "Imaginary Prisons", or the Codex Seraphinianus are weird. There's an uncanniness or mystery attached to them and what they mean. One that springs to mind is Tristram Shandy. I guess I was hoping for books that are not intentionally and calculatedly weird, like Finnegans Wake.

Also: English as in English-language, or as in the country specifically?

Sorry, should have clarified – works in English too.
posted by dontjumplarry at 8:11 PM on April 20, 2016

Response by poster: To give another example of what I mean by weird, these early 19th century sketches of rat monsters (which I think were linked here on Metafilter).
posted by dontjumplarry at 8:14 PM on April 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The King in Yellow.
posted by BibiRose at 8:41 PM on April 20, 2016 [5 favorites]

How 'bout Dahlgren, or Naked Lunch?
posted by Oyéah at 8:46 PM on April 20, 2016 [3 favorites]


As for other cultures, Cape of Storms is pretty freaking weird. It's from South Africa.
posted by guster4lovers at 8:50 PM on April 20, 2016

posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 9:39 PM on April 20, 2016

Best answer: Dhalgren isn't as weird as Nest of Spiders or Hogg.
posted by PinkMoose at 9:53 PM on April 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Halldor Laxness's Under the Glacier.
posted by praemunire at 9:55 PM on April 20, 2016

I don't see how anything could be weirder than "Ulysses".
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:56 PM on April 20, 2016

Best answer: Check out Amos Tutuola's The Palm-wine Drinkard and His Dead Palm-wine Tapster in the Dead's Town (a title I once saw referred to as "unimprovable," but it's usually known as The Palm-Wine Drinkard for short), which is a Nigerian picaresque novel based on Yoruba folklore. It's set in a universe that runs entirely on dream logic -- kind of reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland, if Alice in Wonderland featured disembodied heads that occasionally have to return their borrowed skin to its owner and become disembodied skulls.
posted by ostro at 10:13 PM on April 20, 2016 [13 favorites]

Best answer: Anything by Kobe Abe. Apparently the Woman in the Dunes is the weirdest, but I read the Box Man and I'm still trying to make head or tails of it. who is the narrator? The character? the author? Is the character the author examining another person? Why do they want to become the box man? I have also read the Face of Another, which is also equally weird.

Loved it though.

Here's a quick summary of his books
posted by moiraine at 1:48 AM on April 21, 2016

Best answer: Suzanne Treister’s book HEXEN 2039 - New Military-Occult Technologies for Psychological Warfare… is probably still the most memorably weird thing I’ve read in the last decade or so. There’s a sequel to it now too (HEXEN 2.0), which I’ve yet to look into. Treister’s website is worth a look too.
posted by misteraitch at 1:57 AM on April 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

> Another bid that won't win: The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro...

The most annoying book I've ever read. I felt perplexed and unsettled for a couple of weeks after reading it. Kind of like how I feel after watching a David Lynch film, but with a strong undercurrent of angry chagrin.
posted by ZipRibbons at 2:36 AM on April 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. It's a masterpiece and wonderful, but it's written in an argot called Nadsat.

Once you've read the book (glossary at the back) you can watch the movie. Also a masterpiece.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:29 AM on April 21, 2016

Best answer: Hadrian the Seventh has a sort of outsider quality that makes it weird. It was a cult novel for a while I think.

In other traditions, I think Lucan's Bellum Civile (aka the Pharsalia) is very weird. Part of it is an element of inadvertency; Lucan seems to have been very rushed when he wrote it and it wasn't finished when he committed suicide. Christopher Marlowe's translation of the first book is pretty weird in itself; for some reason, the online version at Perseus.org seems to be gone.
posted by BibiRose at 7:19 AM on April 21, 2016

Best answer: A couple of novels that had me laughing in disbelief, like oh my god who approved this, yet it's pretty well written and I can't put it down and ultimately enjoyed it:

God's Little Acre and Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell are like Faulkner novels but tawdrier. Much tawdrier, and in a bizarre way that makes me wonder whether Caldwell was laughing as he wrote.

The Female of the Species by Lionel Shriver is delightful, but I think it's her first novel and some scenes are so weird and out of place it had me shaking my head like WHAT? Oh god, what next. Here we go. We were just in Kenya, and now we're a teenager living in a factory, and oh here's a knife fight. Okay. Fine. It's all over the place, but I loved it.
posted by witchen at 7:25 AM on April 21, 2016

Best answer: As a footnote to BibiRose: there is a translation of Lucan by the Fowler brothers (of The King's English and Modern English Usage). I wouldn't mind getting hold of a copy just for the oddness of its being by who it's by, so to speak.
posted by Logophiliac at 8:09 AM on April 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: "The Worm Ouroboros" by E.R. Eddison freaked me right the heck out when I first read it in my 20's.
posted by Lynsey at 10:04 AM on April 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I love this question so much :)

The Raw Shark Texts -- I would put this on the House of Leaves weirdness spectrum

The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion by Henry Darger, which totals over 15,000 single-spaced pages and is Voynich-level weird, but in English.

The Ambergris Cycle, a trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer -- creepy dream-like weirdness (the mushroom people! gah!)

Anything by Haruki Murakami -- more creepy dream-like weirdness

Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid - don't let the description on Amazon fool you: this book is brain-twisting, recursive non-linear weirdness at its best
posted by ananci at 11:05 AM on April 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: My friend says:
They forgot "In Sara, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were Men and Women," which might not qualify due to not being readily available. However, Robert Ashley's album based on the book is available and is wonderful.
posted by aniola at 12:59 PM on April 21, 2016

Best answer: A Humument by Tom Phillips should probably on the list somewhere - it's a cut-up and decoration of a Victorian novel to create a new story.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:18 PM on April 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Raymond Roussel's Impressions of Africa is almost impenetrably bizarre, and has quite a following, but it Has Not Aged Well.

Alfred Jarry's Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, Pataphysician is exquisitely strange, and inspired a considerable amount of the 20th century"s finer literaty lunacy. IMO, it should be read by damn near everyone.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 11:23 PM on April 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

I can't believe nobody's mentioned Infinite Jest yet!
posted by lollymccatburglar at 1:06 AM on April 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Age of Wire and String is good and odd, with its language broken down to fragments.
posted by scruss at 4:09 PM on April 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

Seconding Age of Wire and String.

Probably not a winner, but Lanark has a unique air about it.
posted by solarion at 8:07 AM on April 27, 2016

Oliverio Girondo's Scarecrow is pretty strange. Supposedly, Girondo was a major patron of the arts in Borges's literary circle. Supposedly also, he destroyed nearly all of his work before he died, excepting the contents of the book above.
posted by taltalim at 8:33 PM on May 11, 2016

Atlas Press is a pretty great source for very odd books, with a skew toward Surrealism.
posted by taltalim at 8:35 PM on May 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Changing Light at Sandover by James Merrill. The Wikipedia page I linked explains the weirdness. Here's an excerpt of the text.
posted by tofu_crouton at 2:48 PM on June 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

What could be weirder than 'Ulysses'? 'Finnegans Wake', that's what.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 7:48 AM on June 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

Also check out anything from the now defunct Creation Press, such as 'Meathook Seed'.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 7:48 AM on June 15, 2016

At-Swim Two Birds by Flann O'Brien ranks way up there IMO. It is a very pleasurable weird.
posted by Golem XIV at 8:03 AM on June 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

What better way to respond to a two-month old question than re-posting my MeFi classic Odd Books from eleven years ago?
posted by hyperizer at 7:03 PM on June 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

I was about to chime in with Finnegan's Wake, as I was surprised reading through the list not to see it, but there you go, G of A.

So instead I'll just raise the stakes with the work of Henry Darger, starting with In the Realms of the Unreal.
posted by Saxon Kane at 9:26 PM on June 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oh, and if we're including poetry, I'll plug my former teacher Tenney Nathanson. Here's an excerpt from his book Home on the Range.
posted by Saxon Kane at 9:28 PM on June 15, 2016

How about Univocalic poetry? I find it pretty weird. I'd suggest Christian Bök's Eunoia. Religious texts can be weird so how about Oahspe. Faux academic texts? An Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violin. One I read recently, it is bizarro fiction so it might not count as it is trying hard to be weird, Cameron Pierce's Ass Goblins of Auschwitz is fairly out there. In other languages, Blaise Cendrars' Avant Garde novel Moravagine comes to mind.
posted by Ashwagandha at 7:59 AM on June 16, 2016

If On a Winter's Night a Traveler... by Italo Calvino.
The Third Policeman by Brian O'Nolan
posted by zardoz at 11:41 PM on June 17, 2016

The Alphabet Man by Richard Grossman
posted by the painkiller at 1:10 PM on June 20, 2016

For your consideration: Vampyroteuthis Infernalis: A Treatise by Louis Bec, visual artist and founder of the “Institut Scientifique de Recherche Paranaturaliste.”
posted by ikahime at 11:48 AM on June 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

It can't be published for another four decades, but Robert Shields' 37.5 million-word diary has to be up there for weirdness.
posted by dersins at 10:59 AM on June 22, 2016

I knew Bob Shields during his diary-making years (1978-80, specifically). An strange but friendly and interesting man. He fit perfectly the description "gnome-like."
posted by lhauser at 12:01 PM on June 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

The Journal of Albion Moonlight is good - It is based on the poem of Mad Tom O'Bedlam
posted by Jane the Brown at 6:07 PM on June 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

I don't know if these are too self-consciously weird for you. For the bonus "other global traditions" question: The New Life by the Turkish author Orhan Pamuk. I'm not sure I really understood everything, but it has left weird traces in the back of my mind for the last 15 years. English, but removed: Riddley Walker, which I am not linking to because it's best read with no preconceptions about the meaning at all. It's weird because the language is not initially comprehensible, so the layer of deciphering the language interacts with the slowly emerging background to make it more mysterious and to give the story a feeling of importance (because the reader works for it?) that I think it otherwise might not have.
posted by SandiBeech at 8:26 PM on June 24, 2016

The Illuminatus Trilogy isn't that weird, but it's kinda meta-weird, in a weird way.
posted by gryftir at 12:42 AM on June 26, 2016

I'm afraid it's intentionally weird, but Geek Love.
posted by anshuman at 7:24 PM on June 26, 2016

Locus Solus by Raymond Roussel. Try making any sense of that insane labyrinth.
posted by alvin pacino at 1:31 PM on June 28, 2016

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