How do you go about creating a new literary genre? First you need to write something that cannot be confined to an existing genre, then you need a name. Something mental, something bizarre-sounding. Something like ‘Bizarro’.
‘Bizarro Fiction’ claims to be a mix of absurdism, satire, pop-surrealism and the grotesque. The introduction to the Bizarro Starter Kit, published by Eraserhead Press, this new genre is ‘literature’s equivalent to the cult section of the video store’, and produces works that are valued primarily for their ‘weirdness’. I spoke with Tony Rauch, author of the short story collection eyeballs growing all over me… again and member of the Bizarro movement, to find out just how weird he’s prepared to be in order to mark out a new literary field.
For Rauch, Bizarro is ‘a lot of different things mashed together – strange fairy tale adventures in strange lands, or strange parables in everyday settings. It’s speculative fiction of the strange or unusual – alternative things happening in alternative settings.’ I ask what he means by ‘alternative’: is this jackets-with-holes-in-smoking-rollies alternative? Or three-and-a-half-nipples alternative? He says he doesn’t care – ‘everyone and anyone’ can read his stuff, the more ‘adventurous’ the better. But his readers can’t just reject the mainstream: they must embrace ‘an absurd love triangle between dinosaurs’, they must see a ‘cat pawing through a space in a picket fence’ and then invent ‘the cotton gin’; they must fill their ‘sister’s bedroom to the ceiling with yoghurt’. eyeballs growing all over me… again contains stories about a girl who has transplant surgery to swap heads with a goat, a robotic wing-man who goes rogue and steals the girl, and a giant invisible chicken. It is a collection of whimsical nightmares that can be placed on a scale with a bad child’s fantasy at one end and a mushroom-induced freak-out at the other.
Rauch does succeed in writing stories that are hard to categorise. If playing on a Nintendo could be translated into a literary experience, it would feel similar to reading Rauch. The printed format, however, lends a gravity to the stories that even Super Mario 2 cannot match – ‘people keep drifting away lately’ reads like a rather moving extended metaphor for disconnected modern communities. I ask Rauch if Bizarro fiction is a symbolic copy of the real and therefore a vehicle for social commentary. He replies, ‘I see the world as an absurd place, life as an absurd exercise. Absurdists can offer a spectacular view on the familiar; it’s just a different vantage point, another perspective.’ Although some pieces, he insists, are ‘anti-meaning’, which I have to agree with, I can’t see how waking up with eyeballs growing on your forearms sheds light on the human experience, at least as I know it. Bizarro fiction explores common anxieties and everyday social problems, but, for Rauch, the alienation of fathers from their families always involves aliens, and only breaking the time-space continuum can cure a broken heart.
If I had to compare Rauch with another author, I would draw parallels between his imaginative scope and my ten year old sister’s (author of The Giant Rabbit and How He Crushed Your World and the crime thriller The House that Nobody Ever Went In To). Rauch’s stories are free, fresh and strangely cheerful – well worth a read if you wear checked shirts and spend your Thursday evenings not enjoying yourself at The Cellar, or if you’re keen to try something very, very different.