Book Review: The Irreal Reader: Fiction and Essays from The Cafe Irreal


The Irreal Reader

The Cafe Irreal is a literary website that’s been online since 1988. The website was an effort to bring together examples of non-realist fiction from all over the world. After going strong online for 15 years, a sort of “greatest hits” was released in collaboration with Guide Dog Books.

Keeping in line with the short attention span the internet encourages, the fiction in The Irreal Reader is very short. It’s unusual to see a story last more than five pages. Mind you, this isn’t a bad thing. Almost all of the stories benefit from their brevity.

For example, the flash fiction pieces from  Argentinian writer Ana Maria Shua. My personal favorite being “Time Travel.”

Time travel is not only possible, but also inescapable and never ending.

In fact, all of the flash fiction from Shua are amazing brief flashes of metafiction, humor, and philosophy.

Many of the stories are based on impossibilities being treated as common events. In Bob Thurber’s “Shuteye,” a man wakes up early in the morning to find his wife in the kitchen with his heart on a plate. His wife attempts to hide it and insist that he go back to bed.

But I didn’t see how that was possible, how I could do any of those things–close my eyes, go to sleep, trust my wife or ever be happy again.

Other stories are based around realistic events, yet with a dreamlike atmosphere surrounding it. In Brian Biswas’ “A Betrayal,” a doctor travels to a nearby village to treat a sick young girl. He arrives only to find the girl isn’t sick, just in love. On his way home, he gets lost in the forest. Possibly forever. This story how something that could be conceived as having actually happened becoming unreal and distant like a vague memory.

It’s sad but true: one false step in this world and the Fates descend.

The story section of The Irreal Reader is a solid collection and well worth the price of admission. Though it may leave the reader still confused as to what irrealism as a genre really is. Here’s where the essays come in.

The essays in this book tackle the questions of what irrealism defines irrealism as a genre, it’s place in within literary history, it’s relation to similar genres like surrealism and magic realism, and examples of it in the literary canons of different countries. “What Is Irrealism” attempts to provide a cohesive definition of irrealism.

The reader of a successfully written irreal work will be confronted with a piece of literature that cannot simply be translated as a fantasy or a satire, or as a symbolist work of one sort or the other.

However, this definition is further clarified and complicated in further essays such as “Irrealism is Not a Surrealism” and “Defining Irrealism: Scientific Development” and Allegorical Possibility.” It all becomes very complex and some may just dismiss it as academic hair-splitting.

One of the essays I found most interesting was “Irrealism and the Visual Arts.” As the name suggests, the essay explores examples of the irrealist aesthetic in the visual arts, such as the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico. This essay would be especially helpful for those who find the explanations in the other essays overly complex.  Essentially, one can look at the artwork and just know that the feeling the artwork evokes in the viewer is the same that irrealist literature attempts to convey through language.

The Irreal Reader is an excellent look into an off-beaten path of speculative and experimental fiction. I highly recommend this book to fans of short and unusual fiction. Don’t forget to check out The Cafe Irreal for more great short fiction. If you’re an author that has some short and strange stories that don’t seem to fit anywhere else, you may even find a home for it there.


4c4iIXqDBen Arzate lives in Des Moines, Iowa. His fiction and poetry has appeared in Ugly Babies, Bizarro Central, Spoilage, The Mustache Factor, Twenty Something Press, and Keep This Bag Away From Children. He blogs at

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