The Function of the Weird

This moment, which I might have been waiting for my entire life all unknowing – this moment of an encounter with the most beautiful, the most terrible thing I might ever experience – was beyond me.

                                                                                                          -Jeff Vandermeer, Annihilation

Back before my time, or, rather, in the time of my early childhood, before I was reading, a new wave of literature swelled up and burst out of the myriad of usual speculative genres to become something unusual, provocative, and weird. This conglomeration of strangeness sought to break free of the usual tropes and stipulations applied to genre fiction – in its own way it sought to bring back the exploration, curiosity, and bizzareness that defined the early works that would go on to define these genres themselves. We forget, after so many years, how strange and groundbreaking it was to read works like The Lord of the Rings, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Dispossessed, or Call of Cthulhu in a world where other worlds weren’t regularly written about in literature. This “New Weird” returns to that curiosity, moves beyond the usual assumptions of genre (i.e. “Fantasy has elves and dwarves,” “Science Fiction has spaceships and lasers,” “horror has zombies and vampires,” etc.) to throw the reader for a loop. While the early 2000s have often been defined as a sort of “high point” for the New Weird, I think its misleading because it implies that the New Weird is dead, or dying. Far from the truth given the popularity of books like 2014’s The Southern Reach Trilogy (and the more recent film adaptation of the first novel, Annihilation, this year), games like Numenera and Invisible Sun, and webcomics like Kill Six Billion Demons. It is better, I think, to say that many of the key writers who advanced and defined the New Weird emerged in this period, while the “genre” of the New Weird has continued to grow, blend, and explore well into the present day.

Oftentimes the New Weird is summarized as (or at least referenced alongside) “Postmodern” speculative fiction, and while I can see how the label “Postmodern” is applied, particularly as it is often used to simply mean “experimental,” I think that the New Weird has emerged with an entirely different place in contemporary culture. Oftentimes “postmodernism” refers to a worldview where there is no progress – there is no determined development for mankind, no singular way foreward for us to go. Hence, postmodernism doesn’t necessarily have any singular definition, but is usually identified through its use/examination of relativity, deconstruction, irony, and disillusionment with any singular worldview or historical narrative. Postmodernism had certainly intersected with Science Fiction before the New Weird, particularly within the New Wave of Science Fiction in the 60s through the writings of Samuel R. Delaney, Harlan Ellison, and Michael Moorcock. Other postmodern books not usually identified as speculative fiction in the traditional sense still intersected with the genres as in William S Burrough’s Nova Trilogy, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. There are certainly creations in the New Weird that can likewise be called Postmodern (the novels of Mark Z. Danielewski and Haruki Murakami stand out as a particularly poignant examples), but just as many seem hard-pressed to be categorized as such. I wouldn’t call Perdido Street Station or The Vorrh postmodern for simply being strange. In fact, I think that this search for the weird is in many ways a reaction against the irony and relativity usually contained in so many postmodern books. Books like Gravity’s Rainbow or Naked Lunch not only revel in their irony, their non-linearity, and their bizareness, but invite the reader to interact in turn with irony, with a fragmented, relativistic view of the work and the world. A book like House of Leaves, on the other hand, absorbs the themes and techniques of postmodernism and challenges the reader in its weirdness to look beyond. A work of the New Weird provokes a kind of sincerity, but not necessarily the kind that is found in the realm of New Sincerity or Post-postmodernism. Instead, the New Weird provokes a sincerity by making the reader encounter something so strange, so incomprehensible as an entity but still digestible within a story that the reader cannot react with anything but sincere awe, shock, terror, confusion, or what have you. This is not to say that the New Weird is only terrifying or dark, quite the opposite, the New Weird is heavily invested in play and can just as well tell stories that are romantic, comedic, or just plain fun. What is particularly interesting about the New Weird is that it tells a story, and it is invested in that story and allows that story to be followed by the reader, but then integrates the bizarre, the alien, and the strange into the narrative. The New Weird, one could say, is an attempt to use cohesive narrative as its own tool to examine the relativism and apparent meaninglessness of the world without simply relying on the now-normal methodologies of the postmodern canon.

If, then, the New Weird finds itself in a place between Modernism and Postmodernism, or Postmodernism and whatever post-postmodern is, then it is necessary to ask where the New Weird will continue to go. Perhaps it will simply continue and become absorbed into the cultural framework of the current culture, but then will it remain weird? Perhaps it will simply die out and remain a novel movement that will inspire others in the future while traditional genre fiction marches on. Who can say? But I think it would behoove us, as a culture, to examine carefully what we find strange and why, particularly when the weird is accessible through a narrative that is otherwise digestible. It’s one thing to find Finnegan’s Wake strange because it is rambling, plotless, and oddly constructed; it’s a very different thing to find Kraken strange, despite it following a relatively straightforward plot and following normal writing conventions for a novel. Why do we find these things weird? And why does that weirdness matter? In a way, I think this is the very question that the New Weird has set out to answer.

Of course, I don’t expect we’ll ever find a straightforward answer.

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