Writing Absurdist Fiction: An Invitation With Examples

Table of Contents

Components of an Absurdist Novel

 

Those who want to poke sacred cows are welcome to the party. A common, universal theme for absurdist fiction is meaninglessness. Characters are typically disillusioned, purposeless, directionless, and nihilistic. You likely wouldn’t want to read about these characters unless there is some balancing element to propel the story — a wicked streak of humor underlying the saga, clever satire to entertain you, dark visions to add intrigue to the tale, or the hope that the protagonists will find some just cause to motivate them.

Common elements in absurdist fiction, varying in intensity and flavor, include:

  • Fantastical events taking place in a disjointed, disrupted timeline
  • Dark humor injected liberally and unexpectedly
  • Incongruous plot devices and bizarre turns of storyline

Sources trace the origins of absurdism to post-war culture, triggered by the horrors of the world war, but other sources credit it to Søren Kierkegaard, the first noteworthy existential philosopher. Whatever its origin, let’s dive into some examples of absurdist fiction at its best.

 

Jonathan Abernathy, You Are Kind by Molly McGhee

 

Writers writing about absurdism usually bring out the classic examples, citing Kafka’s Metamorphosis (As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed into a gigantic insect), Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful!), or Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (I knew who I was this morning, but I’ve changed several times since then).

 

Here is a little gem, however, that was published in 2023, and is a sterling example of the craft. Penned by Molly McGhee, Jonathan Abernathy’s You Are Kind puts the protagonist in an impossible scenario, facing bone-numbing debt and lured by a government loan forgiveness program that sounds too good to be true, but just might be his only hope of salvation.

 

The program turns out to be devilishly difficult and sinister at its core, auditing the dreams of workers, tapping into their nightmares and worries, purging anything that could hamper their production and slow the Great American Machine. The problems begin when the lines start to blur between waking and dreams, reality and unreality, and morality and immorality.

 

The novel has a dreamy, surrealistic quality, as befits a novel that involves dipping into the dreamworld and the discovery of the archive — the run-off of the dream repairs — injects dark shadows and mysterious beings into the story, byproducts of the ambitious endeavor.

 

Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami

 

Books by Haruki Murakami tend to sneak up on you. You might think you’re reading a conventional novel, then the story will veer into weird terrain and suddenly you’re in the catacombs underneath a hotel or at the bottom of a well or encountering strange creatures during a nighttime walk.

Killing Commendatore takes the lead character, a recently divorced portrait painter, to the retreat of a famous artist’s mountain home — the artist is ill in the hospital. When he discovers an unknown painting by the artist, hidden in the attic, mystery starts piling on top of mystery. A two-foot-tall character begins appearing in the house, a deep bell peals eerily in the middle of the night, an unexplained pit with unknown contents is discovered just outside the property, and a neighbor with a complex history becomes tangled in the painter’s life.

 

Unravelling the multiple mysteries in the story becomes the object in the second half of the novel, a quest that takes on surreal dimensions as our hero ventures into worlds discovered in the course of the tale. By this time, you’re thoroughly wrapped in the enigmas within the storyline and have been persuaded by Murakami to accept them. The gradual insertion of layers of unreality is a technique that Murakami and other writers in this genre use effectively to lull the reader into acceptance of an increasingly askew world.

 

Something Happened by Joseph Heller

 

Something Happened, Joseph Heller’s second novel, written during the bloom of fame that surrounded the release of Catch-22, puts the reader inside the skull of a thoroughly unlikable character, a businessman who is a mass of contradictions, an adulterer, a betrayer, and a thorough schmuck. It’s absurdist maybe in the point-of-view, which captures the fragile mental fireworks that color life in the corporate world. It’s an uncomfortable book to dwell within, perhaps because we recognize so many traits — the phobias, obsessions, and anxieties — of the protagonist, Bob Slocum.

 

Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

 

Kurt Vonnegut likes to keep readers off balance and his stories tend to be filled with twists, turns, and odd coincidences that are jarring and unexpected. Cat’s Cradle starts with a journalist who becomes curious about an eccentric scientist who apparently has discovered a substance known as ice-nine that causes spontaneous freezing.

 

Guidelines for Writing Absurdist Fiction

 

If this literary form appeals to you, here are a few guidelines for writing absurdist fiction:

Be coherent, even if your world itself isn’t. Readers need a grounding point. Provide a character, setting, or framework that is identifiable and constant.

Inject elements into the story that are not normal in everyday life. Anything goes: talking dogs, shape-shifting cats, miniature humans wandering into a scene, strange landscapes appearing unexpectedly, unusually vivid colors, strange accelerations of time.

 

Read the masters of the craft. Don’t skimp on your education. Soak up the lessons from the masters, from Kafka to Beckett to Camus to Vonnegut. You’ll get a sense of range and possibility from the different approaches used by each.

 

It’s more than just being weird. If the intent is just to be as weird as you possibly can, your book will be a failure. Use the absurd to dig deeper into the human condition, explore the mysteries of life, expose the fallibility of treasured beliefs, and mine the corridors of the subconscious.

Have fun with your ideas. Absurdism is a chance to break a few boundaries and let your imagination loose for a while. Enjoy the freedom and take advantage of it.

 

Enjoy the process and see where your mind takes you!

For more tips and resources, visit our website or check out our YouTube channel.

 

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