In Lincoln Michel's new story collection, Upright Beasts, Apartment Wellness workers wander hallways to prevent suicides, children grow up in environs reminiscent of Russian nesting dolls (a room inside a room inside a room), and weather vanes set off neighborhood warfare. It's a world twisted just enough to feel strange, and defies easy categorization. Michel picks his favorite genre-bending books.
For a long time, there have been literary urban planners invested in cordoning off and containing books into their proper plots. They’ve demanded that “literary fiction” confine itself to this complex, and that over here is zoned for “science fiction” and over there zoned only for “magical realism.” Luckily for adventurous readers, there have been plenty of writers who’ve used their books as sledge hammers, knocking down the artificial walls between genres in the night. These writers slip through the holes, strolling through fantasy gardens in the morning and eating lunch at the murder mystery mall before retiring to their macabre abodes in the graveyard of horror.
Here are ten amazing books—I won’t claim they are the best, as there is always more to read—that simply won’t stay put in one genre district. These books each take what they need from different literary traditions and bend them into new, exciting shapes.
1. If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino - Calvino’s postmodern masterpiece is both a metafictional meditation on writing and reading, and a sustained exercise in combining different writing styles. The plot of the book is that “you,” the reader, are reading Calvino’s new book when you discover your copy is incomplete. From here, the novel is split into two parts. Half the novel tells the story of you trying to solve a series of literary mysteries, while the interstitials each contain fictional first chapters of different novels, each in a different style from Western to mystery. The genres of these chapters bleed into the main plot, and all the pieces combine to form something exceedingly rare: a truly unique read.
2. Inter Ice Age 4 by Kobo Abe - Kobo Abe’s 1950s novel about supercomputers, genetic engineering, and post-apocalyptic life feels amazingly current in 2015. In Japan, it is known as the first Japanese science fiction novel. It is also one of the only novels I’ve ever read that successfully changes genres as it goes. Inter Ice Age 4 begins as a hard SF book about then-infantile computer technology with an element of political thriller: the narrator, Professor Katsumi, is trying to build a supercomputer that can predict the future after the USSR builds their own model. But the novel quickly turns into a mystery as Katsumi is forced to shift away from predicting political events, and instead tries to predict the futures of a single person… who is suddenly murdered. In a body horror twist, the computer can somehow read the dead man’s mind after his corpse is hooked up with wires and tubes. And we aren’t even halfway through the book. This story eventually leads our protagonist into an undersea world of mutated humans who are humanity’s defense against a coming environmental apocalypse.
3. The Wilds by Julia Elliott - Elliott’s 2014 debut, The Wilds, offers up a wild serving of feral dogs, romantic robots, and grotesque spa treatments. In the vein of Kelly Link or George Saunders, the stories here are simultaneously “literary” and “genre,” mixing gorgeous prose and complex characters with inventive takes on SF, fantasy, and horror tropes. What ties the collection together are the through-lines of Southern Gothic prose and social satire. If you’ve ever wondered what the gene-splicing of William Faulkner and Ursula K. Le Guin would produce, check out The Wilds.
4. Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami - Murakami is known as Japan’s most famous magical realist—a somewhat misused term in 2015—but in this novel, arguably his best, Murakami weaves together two stories set in different genres. The first half of the book, “Hardboiled Wonderland,” is a cyberpunk science fiction story narrated by a “Calcutec” human data processor. The other half, “End of the World,” takes place in a Kafkaesque fantasy realm where dreams can be read in glowing unicorn skulls. Explaining how these two worlds relate would be too much of a spoiler, so you’ll have to read it yourself to find out.
5. Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson - Carson’s “novel in verse” is a unique mix of poetry and fiction, myth and modern life. Carson’s starting points are fragments of a poem by the ancient Greek poet Stesichorus—which Carson translates in the text—concerning the winged red monster Geryon who Herakles (Hercules) kills during his famous labors. The book soon switches from scholarly study to a modern retelling of the myth with Geryon and Herakles becoming classmates and lovers in the modern day. This novel combines not only poetry and prose, but fantasy, romance, literary realism, and coming-of-age fiction.
6. Gun, with Occasional Music by Johnathan Lethem - Lethem made his name as genre mash-up master with a string of books that combined two genres to form new literary hybrids. His best of those early books is Gun, with Occasional Music, which takes the hardboiled prose style of Raymond Chandler and drops it in a Philip K. Dick-esque paranoid SF world. Conrad Metcalf is hired by a man who says he is being framed for murder. The case leads Metcalf into a world of memory-suppressing drugs, genetically-engineered mob muscle, and Karma debit cards. Above all, Gun, with Occasional Music is a plain old fun read, and Lethem’s wit shines on every page.
7. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson - The most recent edition of Jackson’s final novel includes an introduction by Jonathan Lethem, where he calls Jackson “one of American fiction’s impossible presences, too material to be called a phantom in literature’s house, too in-print to be ‘rediscovered,’ yet hidden in plain sight.” Everyone knows here famous short story “The Lottery,” but far too few have read the truly amazing We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Part (anti) coming-of-age horror story, part gothic murder mystery, this novel also has one of the most compelling protagonists in American literature in the incomparable Merricat Blackwood.
8. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury - On its surface, The Martian Chronicles seems to fit squarely in the science fiction camp. But the loosely connected novel—really separate short stories that were later combined—has none of the world-building or serious examination of technology that we normally think of as SF. The Martians, for example, change powers and personality as the stories of various tone and length go along. Instead, the underlying story of humanity’s invasion and colonization of Mars allows Bradbury to tell a wide variety of tales. Some are cerebral comedies that could have been written by Donald Barthelme or Italo Calvino, while others are beautifully written tales of heartbreak and nostalgia. Elements of horror, dystopia, and political allegory also seep into this essential SF book.
9. Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link - Any of Kelly Link’s genre-omnivorous books could fit on this list. I’m going to go with Magic of Beginners as it contains one of my all-time favorite horror stories, “Stone Animals.” This collection is indeed magical, mixing in vengeful witches, convenience-store zombies, time travel, haunted appliances, and more into a singular bewitching brew.
10. 2666 by Robert Bolaño - Bolaño’s epic 900-page masterpiece is a dark but beautiful vortex that seems to suck all of the great Chilean author’s interests inside it. The novel is divided into five parts, each with different cast of (sometimes overlapping) characters. The first part examines the love triangle of three academics who are obsessed with the same reclusive author, Benno von Archimboldi. By part five, the novel has become a nightmarish catalogue of human horror—part journalism and part Cormac McCarthy—describing the murder of countless women in Juárez, Mexico. The book has a metafictional quality in its focus on literary criticism and myth-making, and through it all runs the mystery of Archimboldi.