Delving into the realm of the quirky through books
September 20, 2007 8:52 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for books with quirky storylines or quirky characters doing strange things.

I really enjoy reading books whose premises or characters are off the wall. Some recent favorites:
Petroleum Man by Stanley Crawford
Towing Jehovah by James Morrow
Gilligan's Wake by Tom Carson
Honey Don't by Tim Sandlin
A Short History of Tractors In Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka
Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy O'Toole
The Undeground Man by Mick Jackson
Villa Incognito by Tom Robbins
The Life of Pi by Yann Martel

It really doesn't matter if it's fiction or nonfiction. I just want to read about outlandish situations or people. Bonus points if the book is funny.

Thanks all!
posted by reenum to Media & Arts (60 answers total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
Round Ireland with a Fridge by Tony Hawks (not the skateboarder. NF; both funny and quirky.
posted by nitsuj at 8:56 AM on September 20, 2007

Very shortly many mefites will point you toward Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 8:57 AM on September 20, 2007

An Invisible Sign of My Own by Aimee Bender
posted by fallenposters at 8:59 AM on September 20, 2007

Three from James P. Blaylock:
The Last Coin
All the Bells on Earth
The Paper Grail

The reviews of The Last Coin give a pretty accurate impression, I'd say.
posted by Wolfdog at 9:01 AM on September 20, 2007

Suder by Percival Everett, a man travels with an elephant.
posted by OmieWise at 9:01 AM on September 20, 2007

"extremely loud and incredibly close" by Jonathan Safran Foer.

the main character is very quirky.
if you enjoy that one, check out "everything is illuminated" by Jonathan Safran Foer.
posted by gursky at 9:07 AM on September 20, 2007 [2 favorites]

Pretty much every Carl Hiaasen book features quirky characters and storylines.

Also if you loved Dunces (and who doesn't?), you may like Fathead by Robert Lesser.
posted by JaredSeth at 9:07 AM on September 20, 2007

Best answer: • Company by Max Barry -- I cannot recommend this enough. And I can't tell you anything about it, because I'm afraid to ruin any of the humor, absurdity, pathos. All three of Barry's novels are great, but this is by far the best. Just trust me on this one. And I'll say this: It starts with a missing doughnut.
• The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving -- dancing bears, dwarfism, prostitutes, radicals, Vienna, taxidermy, boarding school. A classic. Need I say more?
• Whale Season by Nicole Kelby -- Jesus impersonator, serial killer. Super fun.
• Apathy by Paul Neilan -- The guy steals salt. Not one of my favorites, but definitely absurd and funny, and on this list because it's recommended by Max Barry. A bit of a mystery.
• Big Trouble by Dave Barry -- Seriously, the dude wrote a novel and it didn't suck. Squirt guns, mobsters, homeless dudes living in trees and saving the day, mysterious suitcases. Not a bad way to pass time.
posted by brina at 9:08 AM on September 20, 2007

Ferdydurke and Kosmos by Witold Gobrowicz
Almost every novel by Nabokov
posted by rabbitsnake at 9:16 AM on September 20, 2007

Response by poster: Good call brina. I had forgotten to include Company on my list. Definitely a classic.
posted by reenum at 9:16 AM on September 20, 2007

I think most of Chuck Palahniuk works here, if you find him funny anayway, which I do. I recommend Survivor, Lullaby or Invisible Monsters or Rant.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 9:18 AM on September 20, 2007

Best answer: I absolutely recommend Steven Sherril's The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break if you like off-the-wall premises and characters: it relates the story of the minotaur of ancient myth, who contrary to popular belief did not in fact die in the labyrinth but instead has quietly and mundanely survived throughout the ages and today lives in a trailer park in the deep South and works as a line cook at a restaurant. I love the book for being able to carry off the premise so well - far from being "gimmicky," it very much delivers with fascinating characters and a level of mundaneness and normality that is itself utterly bizarre.

The Troika by Stephan Chapman is another neat read, this time about ... hmm, well, more or less it's about a surrogate family that consists of 3 people trapped in the bodies of a jeep, a brontosaurus, and an old Mexican woman, bickering their way through a desert. Quirky or bizarre, your pick - either way I found it to be memorable and enjoyable.

And while this is a far third on my list it can still be fun: how about some of Matt Hill's works? Fool on a Hill, for instance, features talking dogs, protagonists who get into romantic entanglements with Greek muses (okay, just one muse), Bohemians, and a Tolkien-based university house - what more could anybody ask for?
posted by zeph at 9:42 AM on September 20, 2007

Best answer: Some of my most favorite books:
The Box Man by Kobo Abe

Its about a guy who has taken to living in/wearing a box over his head on the streets of Tokyo, and only sees the world through a tiny window he cut for himself. Goes into detail about the process of 'becoming' a boxman and what it is like to live 'out of sight' of the rest of the world. Hands down the weirdest book/character I've ever read about.

for a more haha crazy
Kangaroo Notebook by Kobo Abe

Is about a business man of sorts thats been ask to develop a new concept for a notebook - but this gets all curtailed when turnips start growing on his shins and ultimately leads him to hell, in order to soak his legs in the sulfur rich waters. All the while trying to escape the nurse trying to win the Dracula award for drawing the most blood in a year.

Actually I'm going to bet anything by him is going to be pretty crazy. Woman in the Dunes was equally nutsy - but not haha nutsy. He is something like a Japanese Franz Kafka (same themes) but more crazy less miserable.
posted by mrgreyisyelling at 9:55 AM on September 20, 2007

Here is one that I couldn't get through, but many people seem to really like. Geek Love
posted by sulaine at 10:03 AM on September 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: And you might like Youth in Revolt by CD Payne. People said it was like Dunces but I didn't think so.


Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

This is a crazy pseudo-true story about Savannah, all the crazy people who apparently live in Savannah, and a crime that happened in Savannah, which was just an excuse to scare up more crazies. Its packed more densely with quirky characters of all stripes then any other book I think of.

(THE MOVIE WAS TERRIBLE - The book was far from that. And audio book was better then the book.)
posted by mrgreyisyelling at 10:04 AM on September 20, 2007

Anything by Richard Brautigan, specifically The Hawkline Monster and Dreaming of Babylon.

The protagonists of the former novel are really quite epic.

"That is one (1) dead butler." Great stuff.
posted by elendil71 at 10:05 AM on September 20, 2007

Ok I promise this is the last one:

The book The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld by Herbert Asbury is also full of crazy characters.

Its really not a story - more of a 'Who's Who' of the New York crime world up until WWI (I believe). Again - the movie is not like the book. The book has alot more to it then just the five points.
posted by mrgreyisyelling at 10:12 AM on September 20, 2007

Wonderdog by Inman Majors. About a former (bad) child actor who lives in the shadow of his dad, the governor of Alabama.
posted by strangeleftydoublethink at 10:22 AM on September 20, 2007

Cosmic Banditos by A.C. Weisbecker
posted by sharkfu at 10:24 AM on September 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Also, The Last Samurai by Helen De Witt. I'm not completely sure it's quirky enough, but it is kind of quirky and very good.
posted by OmieWise at 10:36 AM on September 20, 2007

Best answer: I am currently reading Peter Carey's _Illywhacker_ which is very good and might fit your criteria. Also, Don Delillo's _White Noise_ came to mind when I first read your post.

It's probably worth mentioning, and I am very surprised no one has so far, that if you have the stamina to read him, any Thomas Pynchon novel has very quirky characters doing very quirky things, but his density of prose and historical allusion wears many readers out. If you're inclined, start with _The Crying of Lot 49_ or _Vineland_ and work your way toward the others.
posted by aught at 10:44 AM on September 20, 2007

You may also like Jonathan Lethem. I recommend first and foremost Motherless Brooklyn and Gun With Occasional Music.
posted by zebra3 at 10:47 AM on September 20, 2007

Rumo: And His Miraculous Adventures by Walter Moers.
posted by MaxK at 10:48 AM on September 20, 2007

Anything by Christopher Moore.
posted by Roach at 10:50 AM on September 20, 2007

I'm pretty sure zepf means Matt Ruff.

I'll third Company.
posted by drezdn at 10:56 AM on September 20, 2007

Try Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead.
posted by drezdn at 10:58 AM on September 20, 2007

Already Dead - Denis Johnson
Vurt - Jeff Noon
A Prayer for Owen Meany - John Irving
Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World - Haruki Murakami

Also, as mentioned, Geek Love and The Hawkline Monster.
posted by asspetunia at 11:17 AM on September 20, 2007

Response by poster: mrgrey, I LOVE C.D. Payne. Youth In Revolt is one I reread every few years.

Cosmic Banditos was good, but the end wasn't to my taste.

Roach, I really like a Dirty Job by Moore. Is his other writing similar?

Great suggestions so far, folks. Keep 'em coming!
posted by reenum at 11:29 AM on September 20, 2007

I've never read it, but rumor has it that all the employees of the Museum of Jurassic Technology have read The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien. Which isn't that strange I guess, except that they all read it before they worked together.
posted by hapticactionnetwork at 11:30 AM on September 20, 2007

I can't believe no one's suggested Flannery O'Connor. Just about everyting she wrote has quirky characters doing strange things in outlandish situations.
posted by MrMoonPie at 11:34 AM on September 20, 2007

Best answer: Please, for the love of God, if you've never read any John Irving don't start with A Prayer for Owen Meany. You want to start with The Hotel New Hampshire, then take in The World According to Garp. Owen Meany is way, way down the list. And it's a bit on the preachy side.

Forgot a few that I'd recommend for anyone who likes Max Barry:
• Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris. It's another absurd workplace book, much of which revolves around a coveted office chair and layoffs. A bit sad, to be honest, but also funny.
• Con Ed by Matthew Klein. More Russian mobsters, lots of little interludes where the narrator tells you the specifics of certain classic con jobs.
posted by brina at 11:42 AM on September 20, 2007

Response by poster: brina, Garp is one of my favorite books. I tried reading "The Fourth Hand", but just couldn't get into it.
posted by reenum at 11:57 AM on September 20, 2007

I really enjoyed Observatory Mansions by Edward Carey. Kind of a Tim Burton-esque thing. Here's a blurb from Publishers Weekly:

"Playwright and freelance illustrator Carey's impressive first novel is so steeped in grotesque oddity, warped values and dysfunction that it makes David Lynch's work seem sunny and salubrious by comparison. Veering only occasionally toward painfully obvious symbolism, Carey's debut is a darkly idiosyncratic, sharply observed study of lonely men and women stranded on the bleakest periphery of conventional human intercourse. Narrator Francis Orme maintains a hidden "museum" comprising solely worthless objects pilfered from unsuspecting friends, relatives and strangers."

I don't think it's that bleak, but I really liked it.
posted by Atom12 at 12:00 PM on September 20, 2007

Best answer: Please, for the love of God, if you've never read any John Irving don't start with A Prayer for Owen Meany. You want to start with The Hotel New Hampshire, then take in The World According to Garp. Owen Meany is way, way down the list. And it's a bit on the preachy side.

Well, you know. I disagree. I think The Hotel New Hampshire is his best book, sure, but I don't find Owen Meany preachy, and I certainly don't think it merits a "Please, for the love of God" level of discouragement.

But more importantly, how on earth did I forget:

The Island of the Day Before - Umberto Eco
Flaming Iguanas - Erika Lopez
and anything by Jorge Luis Borges
posted by asspetunia at 12:02 PM on September 20, 2007

Anything by Roald Dahl, including his adult short stories.
posted by Marit at 12:07 PM on September 20, 2007

Anything by Barry Yourgrau.
posted by black8 at 12:18 PM on September 20, 2007

Response by poster: I definitely dug "My Uncle Oswald" by Dahl. I didn't have as much luck with "Switch Bitch".
posted by reenum at 12:24 PM on September 20, 2007

Best answer: Dogwalker by Arthur Bradford consists of various short stories in which very odd things occur to even odder characters-- My favorite is either the one about finding a giant slug at the dump and trying to keep it in an aquarium, or the one in which the guy wants to use a chainsaw to carve people's initials in the skin of an apple they are holding in their mouth.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:39 PM on September 20, 2007

Best answer: Very shortly many mefites will point you toward Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.

Well, yes. But Infinite Jest requires a rather significant commitment of time. You should take Wallace for a test drive before diving into all 1079 pages and 388 endnotes of IJ.

I'd recommend starting with The Broom of the System and then, if you like it, moving on to IJ.
posted by ewiar at 12:45 PM on September 20, 2007

I'm sorry, asspetunia. Was being a teensy bit hyperbolic. Teensy. I personally just finished with Owen Meany and I had a hard time forcing it down. It's definitely not as preachy as Cider House Rules, but it does bring out Irving's Big Angry Liberal side.

Anyway, reenum, if you like Irving's dwarfism/taxidermy obsession (what is it with that!?!), Owen Meany isn't a terrible read. It's decent, even. Just not one I'd put at the top of the list.
posted by brina at 1:20 PM on September 20, 2007

The "Pirates! In an Adventure with..." series is hilarious. Not really novels, though. But they're small and good for, oh, an hour's commute or something.

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists. Follow the "also bought" links for other books in the series.
posted by dondiego87 at 1:54 PM on September 20, 2007

Best answer: Remainder by Tom McCarthy. Guy has mysterious accident, gets huge amount of money, recreates events and situations in truly obsessive detail.

St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell is a collection of very loosely-connected shorts, set in a slightly-off world.

Borges and the Eternal Orangutans by Luis Fernando Verissimo is a bit like what might have happened if Borges had written a full novel(though still a pretty short one).
posted by Su at 2:38 PM on September 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Travels with my Aunt, by Graham Greene.
posted by matematichica at 3:44 PM on September 20, 2007

Shoot, I had indeed meant Matt Ruff in my previous post, not Matt Hill, as drezdn pointed out. Sad thing was I'd -seen- the mistake on initial preview but then got distracted adding a different book to my post and completely forgot to fix it. Bah!

Doondiego87's "Pirates! In an adventure with" recommendation brought to mind another good book for this list: George MacDonald Fraser's The Pyrates, yet another truly goofy/absurd pirate story ...
posted by zeph at 4:53 PM on September 20, 2007

Mame Dennis, of Auntie Mame fame (ouch on the rhyme there, sorry) is my role-model for quirk.

Just don't see the movie(s). Well, don't see the Lucille Ball one. The Rosalind Russell one is OK.
posted by Stewriffic at 5:30 PM on September 20, 2007

I second Haruki Murakami, but would recommend The Wind Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka On The Shore as the books to start with. 100% quirky and compelling.
posted by extrabox at 7:22 PM on September 20, 2007

Seconding Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt. (Not about actual samurai, and not associated with the Tom Cruise movie of the same name)

Fool on the Hill by Matt Ruff. Also his later book Sewer Gas and Electric.

Neal Stephenson might fit the bill - start with Zodiac or Snow Crash and see if they grab you; might be too sciencey/dudey.

Quirky people/characters that you can look for bios of:
Paul Erdos
Richard Feynman
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:29 PM on September 20, 2007

I'm happy to see the Matt Ruff recommendations; the one I wanted to recommend is Set This House in Order.

Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates by Tom Robbins.

Ditto Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn.

Roger Zelazny's Doorways in the Sand.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 10:53 PM on September 20, 2007

Best answer: For Murakami, don't start with Wind-up Bird Chronicle. It's his masterpiece, but you need to have full faith in the author to truly appreciate it. If you want to start quirky, I recommend Wild Sheep Chase, his quirkiest novel (and also one of his best).

For the original quirky/weird, go for Gargantua and Pantagruel by Rabelais. Yeah, it's a 16th Century book, but it's funny still today. Same goes for the 18th Century Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne.

Since I'm Icelandic, I'm required by law to mention Halldór Laxness, but I'll do so happily and gladly in this case because his Under the Glacier matches your requirements perfectly. It's got weird people doing weird things against a weird background. It's also his masterpiece (IMO), which makes him unique among Nobel laureates (AFAIK) in that he wrote his best work after receiving the prize. Here's the introduction Susan Sontag wrote for the newest edition (which is the edition I linked to).

Oh, and since I'm doing my bit for islands in the North Atlantic, I can't help but recommend Lost Musicians by William Heinesen, a Faroese author. It's the story of a family of musicians whose talent is of little practical use. It's also a tale of fundamentalism, love and pride. And it has a whole coterie of weird characters.
posted by Kattullus at 11:15 PM on September 20, 2007

Seconding The Broom of the System*.
*not least of which reason is for the very best character name of all time. (Spoiler alert: link includes name)
posted by rob511 at 11:26 PM on September 20, 2007

The weirdest author, by far, that I've read is Carlton Mellick III. He writes in the aptly named genre called bizarro. My favorite book of his is Punk Land.

His books aren't for the faint-at-heart. The linked book has as its main character a dildo collecting (and throwing!) deformed straight 'punk', and worse.
posted by philomathoholic at 12:44 AM on September 21, 2007

You will not regret reading Naïve.Super. by Erlend Loe
posted by cheerleaders_to_your_funeral at 2:38 AM on September 21, 2007

Seconding _Geek Love_, and enthusiastically so. Quirky to be sure, but it has considerable literary merit in my opinion. Because the subject matter is so out there it hasn't gotten the recognition it deserves. It's a pretty disturbing book. I've read a fair amount of novels that are noted as surreal or violent or eerie and none really compares. There's a scene in there so unsettlingly bizarre that I had to put the book down and walk around for a little bit. Read the first chapter, it's only three or four pages. There's nothing too shocking there, but you'll definitely know what kind of a ride you're getting on.
posted by BigSky at 6:57 AM on September 21, 2007

Response by poster: I've heard a lot of people suggest reading "Broom of the System" before "Infinite Jest". I have Wallace on the list, but the sheer bulk of "Jest" makes me want to take a nap.

It's good to see some Graham Greene recommended here. I loved "Our Man In Havana".
posted by reenum at 8:35 AM on September 21, 2007

Zazie in the Metro by Raymond Queneau is the book that made me add "Learn French" to my life list, because the book was delightful and definitely quirky, but simply must loose something in translation. Barbara Wright's English translation is fun though. It's a short novel about a rambunctious (to say the least) teenage girl's visit to Paris and the havoc she causes there.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 10:34 AM on September 21, 2007

Best answer: Will Self's novels and stories. Great Apes: premise, humans and chimpanzees switch places. How the Dead Live: premise, the dead live in North London. Some of Ian Banks - The Wasp Factory (can't describe this one). Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series, starting with The Eyre Affair: premise, literary detective who can jump in and out of fiction, set in a parallel Swindon where dodos exist and the Crimean War's still going in, although it's 1985. Self is always dark; Banks sometimes is (and the Wasp Factory is gruesome); Fforde never is.
posted by paduasoy at 11:14 AM on September 21, 2007

Craig Ferguson's (yep, the actor/talk show host)
Between the Bridge and the River. Good quirky, sarcastic, ironic, fun.
posted by ChromeDome at 11:27 AM on September 21, 2007

Oh, hell yes, an enthusiastic second vote for Geek Love. Heck, I'll send you my old copy, if you like.
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:39 PM on September 21, 2007

Weird--I don't remember reading BigSky's enthusiastic second vote, but I guess it must've registered subconsciously or something. Make mine a third vote, then!
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:42 PM on September 21, 2007

Little late to the party, but try The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart.
posted by nitsuj at 5:28 PM on July 21, 2008

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