7 Surreal Books That Suddenly Seem Relatable

The weirder reality gets, the more these bizarre books seem like literary realism

Photo by Poster Boy

These are strange times. As lives are disrupted by COVID-19, seemingly impossible things are suddenly coming to be—shortages in the land of plenty, universal payments from the government, nostalgia for packed train cars. Hell, Americans are buying out bidets. At this point, if I saw on CNN that a man named Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect, I might not even choke on my coffee. 

To brave this new world, perhaps it’s time to dive into surreal and absurd stories that don’t seem so outlandish anymore. From rapturous extended memories of a conversation with a friend at a cafe (remember that?) to aliens who you’d want to keep at a six-foot distance to cockroaches waxing poetic about a viral outbreak on a cruise ship, these books suddenly feel more realistic than realism.  

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin

In this 1971 tale, George Orr’s dreams have the power to change reality in an instant—albeit not in the way he would have intended in his waking life. For example, anxiety about the overcrowding in the fictional future Portland where he lives becomes a dream about a plague. When he wakes up, 6/7ths of the world’s population is gone. If you are among the perennially guilty, perhaps you’ll see where this is going: at some point, haven’t we all thought that we could complete our own Casaubonian projects if only we had no social commitments for, say, a month or two? 

All the Names They Used for God by Anjali Sachdeva

The nine stories in this collection follow massive forces—technology, religion, nature, the supernatural—at play in ordinary lives. In “Manus,” the forces are aliens who look like “giant globs of snot.” They have dominated humankind via a fungus transmitted through physical contact, and their main order of action is forcing everyone to get their hands replaced, through a painless procedure, with metal ones, commonly referred to as “forks.” On a basic level, it reads like an eerily prescient allegory from pre-coronavirus days about what happens when you don’t socially distance yourself. But it also offers reprieve in the form of a pervasive humor in the face of oblivion: the interplanetary invaders, for example, have adopted a hilariously human version of English, which means they say things like “buncha loons” when watching revolutionaries die in the streets.

The Conversations by César Aira (translated by Katherine Silver)

This 2007 80-page novella consists entirely of a conversation between two friends whose philosophical meetings of the minds generally have “no place for gossip, soccer, health issues, or food.” The conversation in question, however, arises when an offhand comment about a slip-up in a low-brow movie they had both seen bits of turns into an extended debate about the wavering line between fiction and reality. The absurd conversation awakens nostalgia for times when you could sit with a friend at a bustling cafe. But it also mirrors the obsessive consumption of media that has come to replace many of our social lives. Don’t believe me? Search “Tiger King” on Twitter. 

Strange Pilgrims by Gabriel García Márquez

The stories in this 1993 collection, which centers on the strangeness and loneliness of cities, are among the less fantastical of García Márquez’s oeuvre—but you will still find the body of a young girl that will not decompose, a crying dog, and a literal river of light. When, after eighteen years, he finally had a full draft, García Márquez revisited the European cities where the book is set, only to find them unrecognizable. “Not one of them had any connection to my memories,” he wrote in the introduction. “True memories seemed like phantoms, while false memories were so convincing that they replaced reality. This meant I could not detect the dividing line between disillusionment and nostalgia.” That alienation that seeps through the book reads today like a warning for how we’ll feel when we emerge from isolation.  

Get in Trouble by Kelly Link 

This entire collection, a 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist in fiction, is full of delights. But the most salient is the fairytale-esque “The Summer People,” which itself won two literary prizes. In it, a teenager named Fran has a nasty bout of the flu. When her father runs off, she’s forced to take care of the summer people—which means both vacationers and folks of unspecified origins and magical abilities—while nearly catatonic with illness. That horribly realistic point is bound to make you a shudder (and hopefully donate to domestic workers). Flu descriptions aside, the reason to read this story now is the lush Southern scenery. Take poor little Fran’s house: “You could hardly see the house itself, hidden like a bride behind her veil of climbing vines: virgin’s bower and Japanese honeysuckle, masses of William Baffin and Cherokee roses over growing the porch and running up over the sagging roof.” Consider it a mental vacation.

Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms (translated by Matvei Yankelevich)

This collection could merit inclusion on the basis of its painfully relatable title alone, but there is also much from this Soviet-era writer that rings true today. His absurd microfictions, mostly unpublished in his lifetime, are told in a breakneck hilarious deadpan. Who among us has not yet tried this method of cheering up, from a little story about the struggles of being a hermit: “There were days when I ate nothing. On those days I would try to manufacture a joyous mood for myself. I would lie down on my bed and smile. I’d smile for twenty minutes at a time, but then the smile would turn into a yawn. That was not at all pleasant.” 

The Wonder That Was Ours by Alice Hatcher

This is a novel narrated by a chorus of cockroaches. There. Now that’s out of the way. The cockroaches live in Wynston Cleave’s taxi on a fictional island in the Caribbean, and one day he picks up two Americans who have been kicked off their cruise ship—just before a deadly viral outbreak overwhelms the remaining passengers. The book is an open-eyed exploration of colonization and a history of political movements, but the basic plot points are too pandemic-related to ignore. Bonus points come from this proto-twist on the xenophobic term “Chinese virus”: the contagion is called “the American disease” by the islanders. 

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