7 Books With Reality-Bending Settings

Sean Adams, author of "The Heap," recommends hilarious and engrossing novels

Photo by Alejandro Cartagena

When I saw My Winnipeg at the Music Box Theater in Chicago many years ago, I knew nothing about it except that its director, Guy Maddin, described it as “docu-fantasia.” It seemed maybe a little pretentious at the time, but to this day, I can think of no other way to describe it. 

There isn’t much of a plot, and there’s no real protagonist beyond Maddin himself. For just over an hour and a half, he shares a number of details and stories about his hometown, Winnipeg. A dispute between the city’s two taxi companies exiles one to the alleyways. A young man is talked off a literal ledge by his mother on the popular local television program, Ledge Man. And, in the dead of winter, a number of horses escape their stables, attempt to make their way across the nearby river, and freeze, leaving a knee-high forest of petrified horse heads sticking out from the ice that becomes a destination for locals. 

It’s one of my favorite films because of its devotion to a certain strain of madcap world-building that I can’t get enough of. It’s what I seek to do with my writing. In my novel, The Heap, I gave myself the task of creating two fictional cities: that of Los Verticalés, an enormous city that exists fully inside a 500-story building; and that of CamperTown, the city of campers that has sprung up to house the relief workers cleaning up following Los Verticalés’s collapse. 

Moreover, though, this devotion to bending reality—sometimes just a bit, sometimes wildly—drives my reading. So here are seven books that do a great job of building delightfully strange, engrossing, and often hilarious worlds:

A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In by Magnus Mills

Things are amiss in the Empire of Greater Fallowfields. Well, actually many things are amiss. The king is gone. The conductor of the royal orchestra knows nothing about music. The royal astronomer must use a coin-operated telescope. Charming and subtly menacing, A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In is a perfect introduction to Mills’s deceptively simple and bizarre oeuvre.

Dan by Joanna Ruocco

Dan is a town. A town among mountains, a town with a formerly bustling hosiery district, a town where doctors don’t believe in horses and principals go missing while seeking answers in the school basement. But what is Dan really? That is the question at the heart of Joanna Roucco’s unsettling (and laugh-out-loud funny) novel, told through a dizzying series of interactions, which themselves conjure memories of other interactions, which themselves often conjure even deeper memories still.

Meeks by Julia Holmes

That I think of Meeks as being a delightful romp perhaps says something sinister about me. After all, within the opening pages, a man helps clean the blood left on his brother’s face after a DIY tooth extraction so that he’ll be more presentable at the public execution. Shifting between a number of different characters who occupy different places in the social strata, the novel immerses us in a society of municipally-required marriage where a thin veil of quaint formality hides true menace. A great read for fans of Yorgos Lanthimos’s film, The Lobster.

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Big Machine by Victor LaValle

A number junkies and petty criminals are lured to a remote camp in Vermont where they are trained as paranormal investigators. And that’s just how Big Machine begins. What follows is a wild ride through a world of cults, paper-thin demons, soul-eating cats, and wild, terrifying plays for power. Is it science fiction? Is it noir? Yes and yes, but it’s also something all its own.

Event Factory by Renee Gladman

The word “dreamlike” is so often ascribed to novels that are anything but, and that’s frustrating because it undercuts the work authors put in, designating their carefully constructed weirdness as zany nonsense. And yet, how else is there to describe Event Factory? As the unnamed narrator makes her way through Ravicka—a fictional city where the air is yellow and something is driving the populace away, and wherein each moment seems to be dictated by its own logic—it’s difficult not to feel like you’re inside a dream that is as absurd as it is beautiful.

Spaceman Blues: A Love Song by Brian Francis Slattery

Fairly early in Spaceman Blues, the protagonist, Wendell Apogee, visits Swami Horowitz, who lives on the second floor of his childhood home despite the fact that a storm has long since pulled it into the bay, flooding the ground level and killing his parents. On the ceiling of his parents’ former bedroom, Swami has nailed pieces of papers on which are written the names of everyone he knows and then connected the nails of those who know each other with threads of certain colors corresponding to the nature of their relationship. This is essentially Slattery’s novel in microcosm: a wild, unpredictable story about love, community, and encounters with the unexpected.

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Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis

Heartbreaking, thoughtful, and at times brutal, André Alexis takes us to present-day Toronto, where some want power, some seek comfort, and others desire only intellectual rewards. 171 pages long and yet spanning years, Fifteen Dogs is a compact epic about what it means to be human… and it just so happens that all of the central characters are dogs that’ve been given human intelligence as part of a bet between Greek gods who themselves play a part in the story’s action (in case you were starting to wonder how this made it onto this list).

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