"Nothing odd will do long," was Samuel Johnson's lofty pronouncement on Tristram Shandy, a verdict and a prediction that, happily, has been refuted by readers over the last 250 years. Laurence Sterne's fantastic and rambunctious trailblazer of a novel has not only stayed in print, it has sired countless mind-bending and rule-changing progeny.
If we define "odd" as the flip side of the norm, the alter-ego of convention, then it is fair to say the odd novel is in rude health - some may even say reigning supreme. We may not get another Ulysses any time soon, but there are enough novelists out there who remain fearless at experimenting with fiction, at stretching and distorting its genres and toppling our expectations by turning characters inside out and dazzling us with a continuously fresh array of stylistic tricks.
Oddness in fiction is easier to pull off in short story format. Expanding that wackiness over hundreds of pages is a risky business, with novelties wearing thin and kooky characters outstaying their welcome long before the halfway point. Two expert practitioners of oddness have delivered entrancing short story collections this year - Karen Russell and George Saunders. What sets them apart from their peers is their faultless ability to pass off any perceived oddness as realism, something demonstrably weird but nevertheless willingly accepted. We can add a third wheel to that pair, Cleveland-born Fiona Maazel, who, while yet to bring out a short story collection, has produced a magnificently odd second novel. Woke Up Lonely is a goofy delight, and one that, thanks to its constitutional warp and weft of method and madness, prompts the reader to chuckle and to think. Maazel grabs us from the first page and off we go, gliding effortlessly over that halfway point and careering on breathlessly until the explosive finale.
The novel flits between perspectives. At its pulsing heart, around which everything else revolves and implodes, is Thurlow Dan, founder of the Helix, a cult that is on its way to being bigger than Scientology and whose members comprise Americans who practise empathy in a bid to combat their loneliness. Thurlow maintains his outfit is a "peaceful, therapeutic movement", but government security agencies have their doubts: the Helix is armed and militant and Thurlow a sociopathic terrorist. It doesn't help that he has obtained investment from North Korea, which sees the Helix comprised of angry, dissenting Americans and thus a viable oppositional force to destabilise the US government.
Cue a second perspective, that of Esme, a secret agent tasked with infiltrating and dismantling the Helix. The last perspective is four-fold: we flit in and out of the lives of each member of the ragtag quartet Esme recruits, both before embarking on their ill-equipped mission to Thurlow's Cincinnati presidio and during the time they are held hostage.
Embedded within this intriguing premise is a lattice of neat twists and turns. Esme is in fact Thurlow's ex-wife who, together with his 10-year-old daughter, he desperately wants back. Unbeknownst to him, Esme has been his guardian angel over the years, shadowing him in North Korea and deliberately botching operations to bring him down. She is also a master of disguise, going incognito as the mysterious Lynne, and even masquerading as Kim Jong-il. No one is quite who they seem: a tried and tested conceit from many a spy story, and one Maazel clings to. But she also uses it in a different, more subtle way, her whole cast being unloved misfits so long deprived of human warmth that no one can successfully read anyone else. These lost souls need a cult to teach them how to connect. Through her characters' clotted succession of delusions and misprisions, Maazel constantly wrong-foots us, and the results are exhilarating.