10 Essential Surrealist Books for Everyone

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Shane Jones knows a little bit about surrealism. In his first novel, Light Boxes , the inhabitants of a tiny town fought against perpetual February — and in his wonderful and hallucinatory new novel, Daniel Fights a Hurricane , the weather has only gotten meaner — and the people stranger. Because we’re so consistently bewitched by his work, we asked Jones to curate a list of essential surrealist reads for us, so we can pass the time between his novels a little more easily. He writes: “My motivation here isn’t to offer a pretentious list of obscure artsy books – I could very easily do that – but to provide suggestions for books that can be easily found, tastefully devoured, and will supply a healthy shot of the weird stuff. Nothing too weird, but also nothing too easy – no mentions of Salvador Dalí or my mother’s 1960s era fairy tale pictures that hang in the living room. Here are the essential surrealist works for everyone – some old, some new, all must-reads.” We wholeheartedly concur.

The Hundred Brothers by Donald Antrim

The family drama novel ripped apart and blended. The opening pages introduce all one hundred brothers, and Antrim spends the next 185 pages discussing the complexity of the brothers’ relationships while in the spare setting of a house. Most books labeled surreal are criticized for a lack of heart. The Hundred Brothers made me cry twice, especially when the narrator, Doug, says near the end: “I was nothing but another Doug.”

The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns

Published in 1959 and written in an offbeat style similar to Robert Walser but even stranger, Comyns walks the line between harsh reality and neon-colored dream when Alice learns she can levitate. When her father discovers her powers, he imagines the lucrative possibilities, and the book ends with a struggle between escapist dream and bruise-worthy reality with room for only one outcome.

Nothing by Blake Butler

Blake Butler’s black-magic fiction is some of my favorite stuff being written today, but it’s his 2011 memoir Nothing that opens a portal to the accessible via heartfelt autobiography. Watching Butler’s mind melt from reality-aware days to insomnia-cracked nights is absolutely beautiful and wonderfully strange.

The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich

Krilanovich carves up the teenager vampire book and fills it with the truly surreal. Think Harmony Korine remaking Twilight with a soundtrack by Alice Cooper and you have some idea, maybe. The narration for the most part is simple in execution and easy to read, but be prepared for sentences like the following: “Death is sewing a calico dress next to a fire in the ground.”

The Man Suit by Zachary Schomburg

There’s a poem in this book with no written title, just two telephones, one black, one white. Here’s a taste: “The black telephone is a motel for tiny spiders. One family of tiny spiders lives in DEF.” On another page: “The white telephone is God.” Enough said.

The Soft Machine by William S. Burroughs

Naked Lunch and The Wild Boys are personal favorites, but The Soft Machine is so truly messed-up and twisted that I don’t know how to describe it other than saying with a straight face that it’s a beautiful piece of art. Creepy, pretty, funny, dark, The Soft Machine is vintage Burroughs. This may be the least “for everyone” pick on the list that everyone needs to read.

Wide Eyed by Trinie Dalton

Is there anything more to say about this freak-book of short stories after you’ve seen the cover? Here’s one title to a story: “A Unicorn-Lover’s Road Trip.” Surrealism is often said to be too dark in tone, but Trinie Dalton’s Wide Eyed goes in the opposite direction and lands you in a world of wonder and sugar-coated fantasy.

Zirconia by Chelsey Minnis

A book of poems published ten years ago that is still refreshing to read today amongst the murk of much contemporary poetry. Minnis comes at emotions in new angles while keeping the strange front and center. The opening poem is one of my all-time favorites, and includes this stunner: “Then I think about the hazel waves of the ocean and the hot creamy lemon grasses of the moon.”

The Way Through Doors by Jesse Ball

A playful puzzle of a novel about a pamphleteer constructing an amnesiac’s memory through story that gets stranger with each page turned. The author of many books, this is Jesse Ball firing at full magical capability. I tend to dislike the “down the rabbit hole” statement when discussing surrealism, but The Way Through Doors embodies the saying with one major exception: all reality in the story is the rabbit hole.

In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan

In Watermelon Sugar delves deep into surreal territory with singing tigers and purple colored watermelons, but keeps a few roped anchors in reality with allusions to commune living and the importance of nature in a world of technology. Perhaps Brautigan’s biggest lesson in his masterpiece is that we all need to be more compassionate to each other. I realize this isn’t 1968, when the slim novel was first published, but the psychedelic prose still rings strange and true today.