This is the last of my three essays I wrote in the second semester of last year that I’ll be posting here. I chose to share these three essays and not the ones I wrote earlier on in my course because last semester was all about the things I’m really interested in, and by this time I’d learned a thing or two about essay writing. These essays are about topics I love and they’re basically the entire reason why I’ve been at uni for the past three years.
This last essay was for my creative writing supervised project, it’s 3,000 words and I submitted it alongside a 7,500 word creative project called “Once Upon A Time On Mars”, which I have also made available a while ago on this blog and on goodreads. This assignment is a smaller version of what I’ll be doing in the second semester of this year and first semester of next year for my honours project. I’m thinking for honours I’ll examine characterisation and the counter-cultural protagonist in bizarro, but that’s not set in stone yet.
This essay is about the bizarro movement, and what it says about the contemporary culture in which it was produced. This essay may feel a bit heavy on the academic jargon, but I usually try to keep things relatively easy to understand, regardless of your background. If anything needs clarifying, I’d be happy to oblige.
On another note, if you’re writing an essay on a similar topic, you’re welcome to reference this essay, but remember, I’m an undergrad and this essay is a little rough around the edges. It’s no honours/PhD thesis, and it’s not published in any academic journals. If you’re after solid, reliable reference materials, maybe try hunting down some of the stuff in my “Works Cited” list.
THE CULTURAL SIGNIFICANCE OF BIZARRO FICTION
When you pick up the books; Zombies and Shit, by Carlton Mellick III; Sorry I Ruined Your Orgy, by Bradley Sands; or The Pickled Apocalypse of Pancake Island, by Cameron Pierce, you should hold at least some understanding that the books you’re about to read are going to be different from Jane Austen or Charles Dickens or the Brontë Sisters. That’s not to say bizarro fiction is less accessible to the mainstream than other genres or styles, or that it is of an inferior literary class, but rather that it is the product of a different culture. The website Bizarro Central defines bizarro as “the genre of the weird,” and “literature’s equivalent to the cult section at the video store.” They state that “Bizarro was created by a group of small press publishers in response to the increasing demand for (good) weird fiction and the increasing number of authors who specialize in it.” Bizarro is a response to mainstream fiction which employs basic literary techniques to represent a (sub)cultural identity that transcends the boredom of postmodernist experimentalism – which is to say that bizarro works with more than just simulation and the depthless aesthetics of contemporary fiction.
‘Weird’ – it is a term that is too vague and broad to accurately summarise an entire genre. Science fiction can be weird, as can fantasy and horror; even realism can be weird sometimes. None of these genres are necessarily bizarro because of this simple trait. We must instead seek a more technical way to address the question: what makes bizarro, bizarro? There is often an emphasis on crude, violent, sexual or offensive elements (which are openly represented on the books’ covers and titles), and they can function around one (or more) other genres, transforming them into something strange and warped. Here, bizarro fiction borders on the uncanny, what Freud calls the ‘unheimlich’ or ‘un-homely’. Fistful of Feet, by Jordan Krall, is recognisable as a western, but a modified, estranged form of the genre that is less homely than generic westerns, and it is transformed beyond normal-weird and into bizarro-weird through its use of nonsensical elements and perverse detailing of obscure fetishes. Based on these loose elements, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1970 cult western film, El Topo, could be read as a bizarro film. However, bizarro is a movement as well as a genre; it is centred around a small group of authors and publishers, where texts such as El Topo can only be identified as being bizarro-like in nature. It is important when examining bizarro fiction to keep in mind the common elements of bizarro texts, and the literary movement which produces them, to avoid confusion between bizarro and texts that appear bizarro-like on a surface level.
It could be argued that bizarro fiction’s imitation of cult status films, and emphasis on violence and sexuality, signify that it is a form of posmodernist literature which only connects with its audience through a simulation of television and film – it is only good for entertainment, and nothing more. Baudrillard writes that “Everywhere we live in a universe strangely similar to the original – things are doubled by their own scenario. But this doubling does not signify, as it did traditionally, the imminence of their death – they are already purged of their death, and better than when they were alive; more cheerful, more authentic, in the light of their model, like the faces in funeral homes,” (11). To Baudrillard, the universe is a simulation; everything within it is a copy of something else, detached from its original meaning. We can never really access the original because the real world has become what Baudrillard calls a ‘simulacra’, reality is only imagined as real – an ideological construction, or ‘hyperreality.’ Fistful of Feet, as a bizarro-western, is only accessible to its readers through its simulation of western films, which are predominantly simulations of pre-colonial American culture, which is history – an ideological construction of past events, an imagined reality which has since been fictionalised and removed from its original context. Bizarro texts can be read as postmodernist narratives due to the novelty of their presentation as depthless entertainment, genre blending, intertextuality and the use of bricolage, mash-ups, and pastiche. Later on in this study we will examine how bizarro functions as a reaction to this concept of simulation and the meaninglessness of postmodern culture, but first we must have a firm understanding of these surface level observations.
Bizarro texts are something of a novelty, as they’re published by small, independent publishers and distributed online(with the ease and access of ‘virtual bookstores’ such as Amazon providing alternate distribution methods), and are not subject to the same scrutiny that you would find with mass market fiction relying on sales in book stores. This is most evident when observing the titles and covers available from bizarro publishers such as Eraserhead Press. Titles like Warrior Wolf Women of the Wasteland, Zombies and Shit, and The Morbidly Obese Ninja, all by Carlton Mellick III, draw attention towards the novelty of bizarro, hailing readers to view these texts in terms of their shock value and ‘weird-ness.’ In addition to the bizarre titles, each of these texts feature fetishised pin-up girl illustrations on their covers; a gun toting wolf woman, punk zombie, and anime schoolgirl (respectively) – which are novelties in their own right. However, they exist for aesthetic values only, as a simulacrum of sex and violence. When bizarro fiction resorts to shock value through a barrage of sex and violence, it only engages with the reader on a surface level, it is neither thought provoking, nor intellectually stimulating. It is just eye candy for the postmodern subject, a product of a culture driven by aesthetics and simulation, as opposed to meaning and representation.
In postmodernity everything is commodified. Jameson states; “Universal commodification, Marx would have called it… [is] the reorganization of everything in terms of money, the replacement of all earlier forms of global activity, forced and unforced, by wage labor, the reification and commodification of everything from art to feelings, from nature to social relations: everything is reified, and reified irrevocably – no return possible to the old, natural, prehuman or nonhuman things and states of affairs,” (378). Everything is removed from its former meaning (simulacra) and commodified. Books become more than just basic consumer goods, the ideas themselves become commodified, and they are organised and marketed by genre and demographic. A significant portion (not all) of bizarro texts employ elements of genres, sub-genres, blending between genres, intertextuality and the manipulation of genre conventions as the main selling point. While bizarro texts are virtually limitless to which genres they can use, there is a general focus towards older film genres with cult status, especially if it has recently experienced a resurgence in pop culture; genres like zombie/horror, noir, apocalypse, and the western. The re-presentation of genre makes bizarro more accessible, aesthetic, and consumable to the postmodern subject. On the blurb of David W. Barbee’s A Town Called Suckhole, Jeremy Robert Johnson calls the book “the finest post-apocalyptic southern gothic mudpunk buddy-cop blow-out ever put to print.” As global culture transforms into a larger, and more technologically advanced state, information is organised and broken down into smaller consumable amounts; while the blending of genres could be potentially problematic to the commodification of bizarro fiction, the use of genre is made visible to the reader of the text, and generic elements become a way of categorising bizarro texts as ‘this’, ‘that’, or ‘other’.
Another notable element of bizarro fiction is that it is short – most books fall within the range of 100-200 pages, where novellas less than 100 pages and flash fiction collections are quite common, and novels greater than 300 pages are quite rare. This reinforces the idea that the postmodern subject consumes everything in small doses, fragments at a time. People buy ebooks and store them on electronic devices that also store and organise their music and movies. Bricolage, pastiche and mash-up texts take advantage of this trend toward fragmented consumption, taking bits and pieces of what is already familiar to the reader, and commodifying them further. Zombies and Shit draws upon the zombie, horror and apocalypse genres, and filters it through a death match game show plot which references Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale [Batoru Rowaiaru]. This blending of different genres, styles and texts is not limited to bizarro fiction – Seth Grahame-Smith rewrote Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in the zombie apocalypse to produce the mash-up text Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; the Star Wars series is a pastiche of western and science fiction tropes; and the anime series Cowboy Bebop [Kaubōi Bibappu] blends the genre aesthetics of the space western with musical (predominantly jazz) influences. These texts recycle the old into pop culture commodity, simulating postmodern culture, where meaning is arbitrary and the culture is already superficial, depthless.
While bizarro is a product of contemporary consumer culture, it is not all just superficial entertainment. It is not enough to simply outline that bizarro exists within a wider network of simulation and fragmented commodification – we need to examine how it simulates genre and culture. We must not forget that bizarro is a movement in response to “the increasing demand for (good) weird fiction,” (Bizarro Central). The core ideal here is the need to provide readers with fiction that the mainstream has yet to offer – as with the 1970s punk movement, bizarro provides a subculture where chaos and anarchy is the norm and nothing is too weird or obscene. Bizarro deviates from the mainstream, and is represented by a small number of independent publishers and authors who actively engage with their online readership to help progress and define the bizarro genre as a community. In a culture where meaning is arbitrary and the mainstream is built upon depthlessness and simulation, bizarro provides an otherwise identity-less culture with something to identify with.
In his essay, Experimental Fiction vs Bizarro, Carlton Mellick III distinguishes between the two genres, stating that “bizarro fiction is weirdness of plot and experimental fiction is weirdness of style.” While strange, an important element of bizarro fiction is its accessibility to its readership – using conventional narratives to tell bizarre stories. If a story is too complex or experimental in style, it will disorient the reader in a way that distances the reader, where a bizarro story told in a familiar way is disorienting the same way that science fiction or fantasy is disorienting; which is where the reader is presented with a world that is, at a glance, far removed from the real world. This is where genre, intertextuality and pastiche gain their depth. The Pickled Apocalypse of Pancake Island, by Cameron Pierce, is a story about a young pickle who falls in love with a pancake. While it is read for the novelty of the idea, the bizarre concept is framed around a narrative of unconventional love. The text performs cultural work beneath the surface of the narrative, as the pickle people and pancake people are born into cultures with polar opposite views of the world – the pickles, a lifetime of pessimism; and the pancakes, a lifetime of optimism. The protagonist pickle chooses to challenge his naturalised position in this world, and lives by Captain Pickle’s motto: “Unchain yourself from this briny fate, oh pickled prisoner!” (15). Bizarro texts don’t always have to be doing something, but when they do, it comes out through the narrative, and often reflects on culture in similar ways to fantasy and science fiction – with the unsettling representation of themes and issues that are connected to the real world, yet mediated through the fictional world.
In the introduction to Jordan Krall’s book, Beyond the Valley of the Apocalypse Donkeys, Gordan K. Smith writes: “after reading this story from Krall, I am not sure what he wanted to do to the reader. I’d say he was trying to entertain, but there’s something under the surface I cannot identify but it nags me nonetheless,” (9-10). Carlton Mellick III’s article, Weird For the Sake of Weird argues that bizarro fiction hinges upon strong storytelling – which is to say, basic literary techniques such as narrative, plot, setting and character development are more crucial to bizarro than making the weird elements of a story into metaphors or themes. Considering bizarro fiction’s cultural context as a movement, and its transformation of the familiar (the homely) into the uncanny (unhomely), it can be understood that the combination of strong, clear storytelling and absurd/bizarre content performs cultural work that transcends the simulacra of the texts, there’s something under the surface that goes beyond postmodern experimentalism.
The worlds of bizarro texts reflect those in science fiction, in that they go beyond the imagination of ‘the real’, yet the narratives still feel familiar; Darko Suvin calls it ‘cognitive estrangement’. This is where Zombies and Shit (a bizarro novel) is differentiated from Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (a mash-up novel). Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is set in a world we are already familiar with and uses characters we are already familiar with, and blends it with a zombie apocalypse – which is a strange and frightening situation for Jane Austen’s characters, yet the zombie apocalypse is a familiar scenario for the reader. While the blurb on the back of Zombies and Shit defines the book as “Battle Royale meets Return of the Living Dead,” it is set in a radically altered world, with a fresh cast of characters that is not immediately familiar to us. This is reflected in the opening paragraphs of the text; “Charlie rolls over in his sleep and spoons his wife lying next to him,” (9) and he proceeds to smell and feel her neck and hair in detail, gradually noticing unusual things about her and begins to doubt the reality of the situation until the moment of realisation; “This is definitely not his wife,” (9). The reader, like Charlie, begins the narrative with a general idea as to what he can expect, yet the bizarro worlds only reflect the real world in fragments through characters, plots, and settings that are estranged, yet realistic in their own framework, through the willing suspension of disbelief.
Genre, intertextuality and pastiche function both to entertain and to subvert the commodification of genre and pop culture. Where other genres have clear parameters, bizarro functions to demolish the rules of genre fiction, to take tropes and elements of genres and blend them with other tropes or genres, or subvert, deconstruct or parody genre, or to use their aesthetics to subvert the meaninglessness of postmodernity and tell stories that transcend the parameters of the genre(s) being reworked. Fistful of Feet is informed by the western genre; it follows a western narrative in a western setting with western characters. The world of Fistful of Feet is immediately more recognisable than Zombies and Shit or Pickled Apocalypse, yet it is gradually transformed by things that don’t belong in the traditional western; cattle with tentacles, a burping gun, a squid fetishist – all functioning to defamiliarise the reader and to transport them into a bizarro setting. Again, there is an emphasis on narrative and entertainment, yet Fistful of Feet is complicated by its moral ambiguity; it is a novel filled with scoundrels, thieves, outlaw gunslingers and prostitutes, with each character more despicable than the last. It sends out a different message to Pickled Apocalypse, yet it is nonetheless significant to the culture in which it is produced – a postmodern culture of excessive commodification where genre is just another category for organising and storing information.
In his essay, Politics in Fantasy, Jeff VanderMeer posits that; “’politics’ in fiction is not just about using a backdrop of war or atrocity or city dynamics at the macro level to explore questions that affect us in a long-term, broad way. It is also about understanding that all people are political in some way, even those who seem apathetic, because politics is about gender, society, and culture. Every aspect of our lives is in some way political. So if we don’t, at some point during our writing, think about this consciously – if we simply trust our instincts as writers – we may unintentionally preserve cliché, stereotype, and prejudice,” (39). VanderMeer is a part of the ‘new weird’ literary movement, which shares some common ground with bizarro in that it seeks to rework fantasy into a bizarre, imaginative, and contemporary setting. He mentions that fantasy has the ability to appear both timely and timeless, and that; “seen through the mirror of a fantasy setting that allows the real world to be reflected in it, a writer can perhaps more easily be relevant – in the short term – without running the risk of becoming dated in the long term,” (40). Bizarro is inherently political in its juvenile liberation of fantasy, where the new weird is political in its literary re-imagining of fantasy. Bizarro fiction, Bradley Sands argues, is more like children’s fantasy, and “while the majority of adult fantasy may involve elves and dragons and magicians, most children’s fantasy concern protagonists having experiences that are strange and entirely new to them (and the reader).” There is also the political in the way bizarro represents that which society has attempted to hide – the uncanniness of the bizarre, of fetish and taboo. The politics of bizarro is not limited to the representation of fetishes, taboos, and the obscene, but rather that they are part of a larger discourse of politics that is defined by the unsettling nature of cognitive estrangement and the uncanny, the ‘weird.’
Ultimately, bizarro fiction boils down to two elements; being weird, and being entertaining. The effectiveness of these elements is determined by the reader, and (as with all genres) some texts are more effective than others. As a product of postmodernity, bizarro could be read as depthless, superficial commodification of genre, however, the cultural movement signifies a desire to transcend the boredom and depthlessness of mainstream fiction by subverting genre and pop culture – its focus on creativity and cognitive estrangement highlights the desire to take postmodernity into a state where meaning can be found in amongst the meaninglessness, a state that is post-simulation, post-boredom.
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