Most forms of entertainment in today’s trend-obsessed world depend on some sort of gimmick or grand display to sell to and thus catch the ever-wandering eyes of the masses. The highest-grossing movies of last year — “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” which grossed over $803 million, and “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” which grossed $224 million — were both Marvel films saturated in CGI and special effects that promised heavy sleights of hand and big-name celebrities.
Many popular TV shows are either spinoffs or remakes — like “Euphoria” and “Bridgerton” — that feature copious amounts of sexuality, nudity, and even drug usage to keep their audiences intrigued. While this perspective may seem like a conservative critique of the modern media market, the phenomenon should bring forth a sense of worry. Such a lack of substance and reliance on shock factor could reflect the greater decline in the quality of the entertainment we consider valuable or worthy of our already sparse attention spans.
This isn’t necessarily a new trend; it is, after all, the same attitude parents had toward the emergence of dangerous-sounding rock ‘n’ roll music in the 1950s or the gory slasher films of the ’70s and ’80s; however, the prioritization of spectacle in entertainment now seems to be moving at a much quicker, far more unstable pace, even enveloping the books we find ourselves drawn to.
Prominent authors in today’s literary world — like Colleen Hoover, known for her sultry psychological thrillers, or Sarah J. Maas, who weaves intense themes of sexuality into her high fantasy worlds — to some extent depend on shock factor and the inclusion of taboo subject matters to keep their work relevant. However, regardless of the cheap storytelling tactics used to appeal to audiences, it seems to be working in reversing the slow, sad decay of the written word.
In 2021, there was an overall 8.9% increase in fiction sales in the domestic market, with adult fiction and YA leading the way. Regardless of the improved revenue for literary markets, it’s important to understand that a rise in the number of purchases doesn’t necessarily mean an increase in quality. If anything, the pattern, as I’ve illustrated earlier, is the opposite. It seems that the craft of writing to impart knowledge through good storytelling has been exchanged rather cheaply for a desire to create a shiny new spectacle for everything we read or watch.
However, it seems that there’s also a loophole to be found with such a lack of substance, a quality that can combat the heightened states of consumerism with which books are now being devoured. Absurdity, the quality or state of being ridiculous or wildly unreasonable, is the key to reversing the cheap approach to modern literature. Books that are so wildly insane, so entirely mind-boggling, not only hold their reader’s attention, but keep their mind stimulated as well.
The following five books aim to and ultimately achieve their goal of reviving the ultimate purpose of books in general — to teach and transmit knowledge in an age where it seems scarcer than ever.
1. “Nightbitch” by Rachel Yoder
In this marriage between Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow-Wallpaper,” a bored Midwestern housewife finds herself turning into a dog. While such a premise is shocking enough, the book focuses on the struggles of motherhood and how female rage intersects with expectations.
It also comments deeply on how female ambition and feminism cannot coexist without criticism, dismantling the stay-at-home soccer mommy stereotypes. While a woman turning into a dog is the catalyst pushing this narrative forward, there is also a much deeper social commentary to be had, all wrapped up in a bloody, snarling, magically realistic bow.
2. “Bunny” by Mona Awad
When young writer Samantha Mackey receives a scholarship to study at an elite liberal arts college, she immediately orients herself against the rich and shallow girls, a group that affectionately calls each other “Bunny.” However, while such groups of mindless classmates are seemingly harmless, Sam soon learns of the intricately violent rituals they perform, turning men into monsters and behaving in disturbingly cult-like ways. A wildly imaginative take on toxic femininity colliding with sorority culture satire, this book will leave your mind spinning with confusion, intrigue and fear.
3. “A Touch of Jen” by Beth Morgan
Remy and Alicia are an unhappy, working-class couple whose only link to each other is their mutual obsession with Instagram influencer Jen. When they get invited to a weekend away at the Hamptons with Jen and her arrogant boyfriend, the line between reality and the internet begins to blur, and they consequentially fall into a realm of terror fueled by likes and comments. A witty and fresh perspective on the dangers of parasocial relationships online and how the looming presence of technology has pushed mankind into a trap of validation, this book promises to make you wonder what parts of your world really belong to you and when it’s time to hit “block.”
4. “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” by Ottessa Moshfegh
This story about a rich and beautiful anonymous narrator that decides to sleep a year of her life away after contemplating the deaths of her parents makes the overall unfulfilled nature of her reality captivating. Dark humor and rich characterization contrasted by such a sure, sad driving narrative probes at what is truly purposeful in life and idealizes the fantasy of wanting to disappear in such a busy, shallow world. While such a narrative might seem ridiculous, it reveals a dark reality that many face and subsequently shouts inside, where dreams and nightmares live and collide, threatening and hoping that it will wake you up.
5. “Comfort Me With Apples” by Cathryenne M. Valente
In less than 100 pages, this modern, mind-altering visitation of a fairytale will leave readers stunned. The main character, Sophia, has everything she could ever want with a “perfect” husband in a perfect house in the perfect neighborhood of Arcadia Gardens. However, augmented by its hyperbolic language and sultry tone, this story has darkness looming at its edges. The book uses a rather Tim Burton-esque approach to a seemingly wonderful reality and the paint is eventually peeled back to reveal something far more sinister that will make the reader question their place in the world and what roles they play.
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