I realize you may be wondering what absurdist fiction is. At first glance, it seems to have a negative connotation. “Absurd” is rarely used in a positive context. But this isn’t necessarily a positive or negative use of the word either. Instead, this genre is about tackling themes like existentialism and the human condition through unusual means. Absurdist authors might use non-chronological storytelling, surrealism, and dark comedy. They also include nihilistic perspectives, satire, and irrational logic hence, “absurd.” Now, a warning: These stories can get quite deep and be difficult to wrap your head around. But bear with me because you can get so much out of them if you give them a chance.
The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus
This is a 1942 essay in which Camus introduces his philosophy about the absurd. According to him, the absurd exists between the human need to give life meaning and the unwavering silence that the universe returns. We try and try to no end and the universe doesn’t care. But he doesn’t say this in a “we should just give up” sentiment. Instead, he outlines various different approaches to living an absurd life. His conclusion makes this a provoking read.
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Vonnegut’s novel is often characterized as anti-war and follows the life of Billy Pilgrim as he travels back and forth through time. We go from his early years to his time as an American soldier in World War II to his post-war years. Vonnegut explores existential topics, death, philosophy, and mental illness.
Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
In this play, Vladimir and Estragon have various discussions and encounters while waiting for someone named Godot, who never arrives. Though Beckett has never clarified who or what Godot is or represents, he denied that Godot is God or anything of that sort. He also repeatedly condemned misinterpretations of the play, but never provided his own explanation for its meaning. It’s a read that makes you consider all kinds of potential social, political, and religious references.
The Trial by Franz Kafka
The Trial tells the story of Josef K., a man arrested and prosecuted by an invisible and inaccessible authority for a crime that neither he nor the reader knows. Some interpretations say it’s a commentary on day-to-day life feeling like a trial, while others say it follows the prevalence of totalitarian themes in society. Since there’s no right answer, it makes for an interesting read to think about on your own. Kafka never actually finished this book, but it does include a chapter that intentionally ends the story abruptly.
The Answers by Catherine Lacey
This novel is about the way we search for and think about relationships and what we believe we need when we are in love. It follows Mary into a relationship experiment created by an actor searching for the “perfect girlfriend.” He breaks a woman’s perceived role into different parts and hires women to play the Anger Girlfriend, Maternal Girlfriend, and Mary’s role: Emotional Girlfriend, among others.
1984 by George Orwell
The classic 1984 is one of the most well-known books about the consequences of living in a surveillance state. You’ve likely heard the phrase “Big Brother” in reference to being watched, and this is where that originates. “Big Brother” is an all-seeing power in this fictional totalitarian nation where mass surveillance is the norm and there is no freedom of expression. The story cautions against mass surveillance and makes you wonder about the similarities in our own world.
You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman
A woman known as “A” lives with her friend “B” and her boyfriend “C.” Among the chaos of the story, they want her to join a dating reality show, she models herself after an unattainable beauty standard, and B tries to make herself an exact copy of A. It’s a fascinating novel that explores themes of sex and friendship, consumerism, and a scary vision of the idea of modern womanhood.
If the premise of these stories caught your eye, feel free to take a deep dive into the writing. As society changes, the meanings and interpretations of these ideas can also change. It’s fascinating how timeless this genre of fiction can be.
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