It was sometime after the man in the mushroom cap sang a song about earwigs yet well before Werner Herzog’s nihilistic re-imagining of “The Wizard of Oz” that I realized I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
Instead, I was sequestered at the delightfully bohemian McMenamins hotel in Troutdale, Oregon (just outside Portland) for the eighth annual Bizarro Convention, billed as “the largest gathering of writers, artists, editors and fans of Bizarro Fiction on the planet.”
The event also marked the 10th Anniversary of the official naming of the genre, described in the jacket copy of “The Bizarro Starter Kit” story collections as “literature’s equivalent to the cult section at the video store”.
As such, Bizarro includes everything from direct homages (like “In Heaven, Everything Is Fine: Fiction Inspired by David Lynch”, edited by Cameron Pierce) to novels with Troma/Roger Corman-esque grindhouse titles like “Warrior Wolf Women of the Wasteland” by Carlton Mellick III and, uh… “Rampaging Fuckers of Everything on the Crazy Shitting Planet of the Vomit Atmosphere” by Mykle Hansen (past winners of the genre’s Wonderland Book Awards, in the novel/novella and short story collection categories, respectively).
The titles above suggest the intersection of humor, artsy surrealism, B-movie action, offbeat sexuality, and punk rock attitude in the Venn diagram of Bizarro’s appeal to its fans and purveyors. Or, as clarified by Rose O’Keefe, the publisher/owner of Portland’s Eraserhead Press (essentially ground zero for the genre since its formation in 1999), “if an audience enjoys a book or film primarily because of its weirdness, then it is Bizarro. Weirdness might not be the work’s only appealing quality, but it is the major one.”
Indeed, much like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous “I know it when I see it” test for obscenity, the definition of Bizarro is more art than science — yet certain common denominators were clearly in evidence amid the merch tables, readings, and workshops of the genre’s recent gathering of the faithful.
For one thing, while Bizarro itself is relatively new, its fans and creators share common underground and pop culture touchstones, from Burroughs and Vonnegut to EC Comics and “Aqua Teen Hunger Force”. There’s a clear anti-authoritarian, DIY aesthetic in the proliferation of small presses and self-published works feeding the genre, a welcoming spirit of bonhomie with regard to newcomers, and a “try anything” eclecticism in the multi-hyphenate CVs of authors who also dabble in music, filmmaking, theater, graphic novels, social media, and anything else that catches their fancy.
As a result, Bizarro Con features not only the sales tables, panels, workshops, and awards ceremonies of a standard book fair (with MP Johnson winning this year’s Wonderland Best Novel prize for “Dungeons & Drag Queens” and “I’ll Fuck Anything That Moves and Stephen Hawking” by Violet LeVoit scoring Best Story Collection) — but also short films, live rock, and something called “The Kevin L. Donihe Water Ballet” in the McMenamins soaking pool (which I was sadly unable to attend).
Even many of the readings at last weekend’s Bizarro Con were flavored with dashes of performance art — from the interactive, psychedelic children’s book presented by the aforementioned mushroom-capped man, author/rocker Andrew Goldfarb (who, along with “Sister Beth” Ricketson) later provided musical accompaniment for actress/author/filmmaker Laura Lee Bahr’s revival meeting rave-up on behalf of her latest novel, “Long-Form Religious Porn“) to Jeremy Robert Johnson’s scathing, hilarious takedown of “respectable” authors, like the Jonathans Franzen and Safran Foer.
“Because there is nothing more important than coming of age,” Johnson sneered in the guise of a condescending, multiply MFA’d critic, before proclaiming that REAL literature consisted only of thousand-page doorstops by and for upper middle class Manhattanites, and also “stories about divorce that end with a refrigerator humming.”
But the ultimate confluence of fiction and performance occurs each year at the Ultimate Bizarro Showdown, where authors “give the most unique and entertaining three minute reading of their lives.” As such, the 2015 contest included that Herzogian version of “Oz” from the first paragraph, as well as head shaving (and more painful forms of hair removal), the demonic possession of a Rosie O’Donnell doll, and author/publisher Danger Slater’s prizewinning depiction of a giraffe imitating a kitten.