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Your family's not that fucked up

Dreading Christmas with the relatives? Take comfort from these dysfunctional novels

Or if they are, you’re not alone. Writers have been lamenting the difficulty of other people for centuries, and there are no other people more frustrating, complicated, guilt-inducing or worthy of ambiguous, literary-fiction-style non-resolutions than the ones you have no power to control. As December descends, check our top ten picks for books to read when you need to commiserate (or an escape from your father’s nagging). 

All Families Are Psychotic by Douglas Coupland

Set against a sweaty Floridian backdrop that will be familiar to anyone who’s suffered through the socks-and-sandals of the classic American family vacation, Coupland’s outrageous family reunion is absurdist to the point of being polarizing. But underneath the fast-moving action lies a novel that links serious issues like AIDS, kidnapping and violence with not-that-frivolous family drama to demonstrate, in a thoroughly modern way, why the title is pretty accurate. 

& Sons by David Gilbert

While the ongoing emotional turmoil of the wealthy New England white man is nothing groundbreaking, J.D. Salinger’s recent posthumous leaks make this a particularly relevant reflection on mortality, family, and guilt; the parallels between Gilbert’s reclusive author A.N. Dyer, who penned an angsty adolescent manifesto of a novel, and the real-life recluse will not escape fans of the Caulfields or Glasses. 

Music for Torching by A.M. Homes

Last year’s May We Be Forgiven was a strange, darkly funny domestic horror story, but we like Homes’ earlier novel, similarly suburban and behind-closed-doorsy, because it’s even heavier on the action. Plus, this one includes orgies. 

A Plague of Wolves and Women by Riley Michael Parker

Plagues! Like bad genes, but worse – the characters in Parker’s 2011 debut are either bald, toothless and gruesome or devastatingly beautiful and violent, and they’ve been that way for generation after hollow-eyed generation. Like Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet, Parker’s perversion of the narrative of the Fall will give you nightmares. 

The Ice Storm by Rick Moody

The scene sounds like a cult horror film: suburbia. 1973. Families only superficially well-adjusted are stuck at home during a holiday ice storm and forced to deal with their issues – adultery, children’s drug abuse, alcoholism, etc. Is anyone in suburbia actually boring?

The Marbled Swarm by Dennis Cooper

Think Lolita, but substitute pedophilia with cannibalism and Nabokov’s downright lovely prose with stark experimentalism and a setting that’s uncomfortably contemporary. 

The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits

It’s pretty hard to escape childhood without some set of parent-inflicted issues, even if they do make it to every one of your basketball games. When the precocious young psychic Julia becomes obsessed with her mother’s suicide, shit obviously gets Freudian, and her mentor (also female, also wielding deeply complex mental leverage) does not help.  

The Royal Family by William T. Vollmann

Vollmann explores a lot of themes in this ambitious, gritty portrait of San Francisco’s grungy underside – prostitution, outcasts, power, identity – but it all starts with a brotherly relationship fractured by one brother’s love of the other’s wife. 

Liars and Saints by Maile Meloy

Written in a series of striking vignettes, Liars and Saints chronicles the turbulence of a family secret told in the 1950s as it snowballs into affairs, alcoholism and religious upheaval over the next fifty years. Meloy’s deft handling of multiple perspectives and decades makes what might have been a melodramatic soap opera feel like an important comment on the inevitable existential weight of generational burden. 

In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell

Though bleak and bitter from page one, Bell’s characters are ultimately moving, engaged in the struggle to make their family work despite violence, jealousy, abuse, and our innate animal instincts. Bell draws on fabulism and mysticism to paint a deceptively simple portrait of relationships.