Psychologists at the University of British Columbia recently found that after students read a short story by Franz Kafka, their "implicit learning" skills were sharpened: The students were more easily able to identify subtle patterns in seemingly random strings of letters. In other words, it's possible that exposure to the bizarre might make us smarter.
If that is indeed the case, then "Not Normal, Illinois: Peculiar Fictions From the Flyover," edited by Michael Martone, might well provide a healthy jolt of strangeness to your brain. The collection is, in Martone's words, "deviations from the norm of the 'traditional' short story that is realistic in style and narrative in form."
"Not normal" is interpreted here very widely, meaning that the collection has a refreshing range. Louise Erdich's "F--- With Kayla and You Die" is in many ways realistic in style and narrative. Yet the extreme desperation of the characters gives the story an uncanny edge, evoking Raymond Carver at his most Gothic.
Stuart Dybeck's "Visions of Budharin" deals with an urban landscape and the legacies of childhood, as do many of his more "normal" stories. Yet this story requires the reader to accept one very strange premise: The main character has returned to his childhood neighborhood inside a large elephant, with "thick squat legs that looked like ice-cream drums ... [and] huge cardboard ears."
In many cases, however, the stories play with form. Several stories, such as "13 Remotely Related to South Bend, Indiana" by Lily Huang, are structured like lists. Several others, while not strictly lists, are divided into labeled sections or rely on an accumulation of smaller parts. Erin Pringle's "Wednesday Night Reflections, Edited Thursday" is a series of short sections describing a troubled relationship: The sections are written with such an attention to emotional detail that the sum of the story's parts is devastatingly precise.
In the case of Robert Day's "Some Notes on the Cold War in Kansas," the division of the story into sections with headings is all that distinguishes it, formally, from a more "traditional" story. Other pieces more radically break form, incorporating visuals, transcriptions of conversations, multiple columns or the language of philosophy or art criticism.
But maybe trying to articulate the "strangeness" of the artistic choices represented in this collection ultimately misses the point. What all the stories have in common, and what really makes them refreshingly "not normal," is an inclination to resist easy answers. All the stories make the reader work a little harder for meaning; they have a vision of the world that is skewed instead of straightforward. They remind us that what we think of as "normal" is actually just another story that we tell ourselves.
Laura C.J. Owen is a Minneapolis-based writer.