With the recent-ish news that Amazon has ordered a half-hour comedy pilot for Chris Kraus’s seminal (SORRY, COULDN’T HELP MYSELF) 1997 experimental feminist novel, I Love Dick, a person with a great love for passionately weird and beautifully eccentric feminist literature cannot be blamed for a sudden sense of hope that perhaps the time has finally arrived when everyone will be reading great, gorgeous, and boundary-crushing books. Well, okay, maybe that person isn’t holding her breath, but there’s no better moment than the present to brush up on some fundamental contemporary feminist texts. If nothing else, an exhaustive knowledge of experimental and postmodern feminist fiction is an extremely useful party trick when some dude starts going off about David Foster Wallace (“not Infinite Jest, the essays”) for the fourteen thousandth time. In no particular order, here’s a handful of gloriously weird books that will make you think harder and prettier, cross my heart, and I’ve got lots more recommendations where these come from if anyone is interested in a follow-up post.
Renee Gladman’s Ravicka novels: Danielle Dutton’s magical press Dorothy: A Publishing Project is a constant source of genre-defying books that use language in brilliant, beautiful ways (seriously, her entire list is GOLD), and Renee Gladman’s Ravicka novels are particularly ravishing examples. In one, a mysterious linguist, fluent in Ravic, narrates her journey through the strange, constantly shifting country of Ravicka. In another, a Ravickian recluse does her best to get to a poetry reading, with unexpected results. Gladman’s wild, beautiful books echo bits of Borges and Samuel R. Delany, but build their eerie worlds with a sensibility entirely Gladman’s own. As a special bonus prize, once you’ve gone through the entire Dorothy catalogue, you can move on to Dutton’s own novels, which are as sharp and dazzling as the work she publishes.
Oreo by Fran Ross: First published in 1974—into a landscape that was definitely, totally not ready for it—and happily reissued in 2015 by New Directions, Oreo is a criminally neglected and totally hilarious knockout of a novel that uses fantastically inventive language games, pyrotechnic virtuosity, and maliciously dark humor to tell the deliberately absurdist Theseus-esque story of a half-black, half-Jewish girl’s search for her MIA father. There are puns, there’s unbelievable wordplay, jokes in multiple languages, a narrative that veers wildly from uproariously funny to, in places, utterly impenetrable; Oreo is subversive, queer, relentlessly intelligent, and gleefully challenging. Perfect for people who really meant to make it through Thomas Pynchon but never quite bothered to get very far because Thomas Pynchon isn’t actually that fun. (Cough, cough.)
Commentary by Marcelle Sauvageot (translated by Christine Schwartz Hartley and Anna Moschovakis): Pretty much a sadder, sharper I Love Dick without the husband, written by a dying Frenchwoman in the early twentieth century. Beloved by her Surrealist besties at the time, Sauvageot fell into obscurity after her death, but Commentary will ring solid for fans of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and Chris Kraus herself. (Translator Anna Moschovakis’s own work is another great body of experimental prose-poetry-theory-memoir to check out.)
Inferno: A Poet’s Novel by Eileen Myles: Myles is having a Serious Moment right now, but if you’re unfamiliar with her work, Inferno is hands-down my favorite out of all her books (though Cool For You and Chelsea Girls were game-changers for me as a baby queerdo). Inferno’s a more or less autobiographical detour through the hip, bro-heavy poetry scene of 1970s New York, punctuated with acerbic observations, bad behavior, and hot sex. Myles can swerve from devastatingly funny to just plain old devastating in a single sentence; her language in Inferno is precise, snarky, and often stunning, and anybody’s who’s ever tried to pass herself off as one of the boys in order to survive as a girl will find page after page of, let us say, highly relatable material.