Literary wanderings: The weirdest book I’ve ever read — it’s lit

A framed image of a small child's figure within flames.
(Gerrit Punt • The Student Life)

Someone once asked me, “What is the weirdest book you have ever read?” My mind immediately jumped into action, culling through an assortment of odd books from over the years. 

Possibly, “Ducks, Newburyport?” After all, it is an absolute doorstop of a novel that tells a story over 1000 pages in one nearly continuous, wild run-on sentence. It’s certainly in my top three. 

Finally, though, I landed on Kevin Wilson’s “Nothing to See Here,” a sneakily normal-seeming novel with one noteworthy twist. The book is centered around a young woman named Lillian who is asked by a friend whom she hasn’t been in touch with since high school, Madison, to be a nanny for her two children. The two women were roommates in boarding school, but their lives have diverged: one to a drifting life with little discernible direction, the other to an outwardly perfect life of luxury. 

Lillian agrees to visit the house, and the job seems straightforward at first — effectively just babysitting two siblings full-time. Then, sitting in the living room, one last little detail is divulged: the children spontaneously catch fire. 

Their inexplicable combustion causes no harm to themselves but understandably wreaks havoc on the surrounding area. And so, Wilson takes an initially unremarkable storyline and turns it on its head. 

“Nothing to See Here” came to me at an interesting time. I was preparing myself — mentally, physically, emotionally — for a three-month dive into Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” This little book about children randomly catching on fire seemed like an appropriately light-hearted primer.

It proved to be much, much more. 

Despite the wacky premise, Wilson tells a story that manages to be both hilarious and thought-provoking. The book was laugh-out-loud funny and deeply emotional, traversing the line between the two with a masterfully light touch. 

One moment Lillian is testing various fire-retardant methods in case of a sudden outburst, and the next, she must essentially be a single parent to the two children. 

Lillian, who has taken care of no one but herself for her whole life until this point, is now entrusted with the care of two young children. The kids have been repeatedly moved around and swept under the rug to preserve their father’s career from the scandalous discovery of his fiery children. 

It is ultimately a story about the complexity of family life and the ups and downs of parenthood wrapped carefully in a charmingly absurd bundle. 

A lot of books are far more realistic. Both fiction or nonfiction, they exhibit landscapes, people and events that are real (or, at least, perfectly feasible). They tell us about the world and how it really is. They give us a certain kind of knowledge. 

Every once in a while, we need a truly outlandish book to remind us that, at least on the page, anything is possible. Dragons hoard gold in mountain caves, boys get lost at sea with tigers and, in a certain house in Tennessee, children catch on fire. 

Books like these take us on wild adventures and teach us a different kinds of knowledge — not about how the world is but about how we are. They don’t trade in concrete facts but rather in beliefs, emotions and relationships. They mine stories from the social fabric of our lives, from some patch of the human experience. 

“Nothing to See Here” is one such book. Even though it took only two days to read (it is quite short), I was left in silence in my chair, the book closed in my hands, thinking about life and being in the world and what truly matters. 

Ryan Lillestrand PZ ’23 is a book columnist for TSL. He is endlessly thankful for the Book Room and $1 books.

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