Wonderful Books Featuring Unlikeable Protagonists


We live in a culture where we’re supposed to all like each other, at least on Facebook. But what happens when our authors write unlikeable characters? Some of the protagonists below are beyond unlikeable — they are murderers, molesters, and unrepentant abusers — the Raskolnikovs of contemporary literature (with one throwback included in the list). How are we supposed to relate to someone who does reprehensible things and rarely looks back? Do we read on, or do we throw the book against the wall in exasperation? We wrote about morally questionable authors last week, but think it’s time to examine the voice and actions of main characters this time around, because it can be difficult to get through a novel when you can’t stand the person you’re reading about.

African Psycho by Alain Mabanckou

For the duration of this short novel, Gregoire Nakobomayo, a pitifully ineffectual metal worker, keeps trying to talk himself into killing his girlfriend as he debates which murder weapon to use and when. Will it be a gun or a knife? As Nakobomayo says in the opening lines, “killing someone requires both psychological and logistical preparedness… it is now a question of detail.” You almost want him to do it, just so he’ll have something else to talk about for once.

Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth

Okay, so maybe Alexander P. isn’t a killer, but he is a smug, self-absorbed jerk, right? That means he’s safely in the “unlikeable” category. Portnoy is a shiksa-chasing, guilt-ridden Jew who has too many flashbacks and not enough threesomes with Italian women. Or so he thinks.

Notes From the Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky

“I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased…” This, ladies and gentleman, is how the novel begins, and it only gets worse from here. The Underground Man cannot even compare himself to an insect — that is how little he thinks of himself. Do we pity him, or are we increasingly exasperated with his existential alienation?

The Elementary Particles by Michel Houllebecq

Bruno Clement is a humorless, sex-obsessed, contemptuous man who unsurprisingly does not treat his girlfriend well. During his stay at the commune where they meet, he writes, “She must have been very attractive when she was twenty. Her breasts were still in good shape, he thought when he saw her by the pool, but she had a fat ass.”

Post Office by Charles Bukowski

You either love Bukowski and his characters or you hate them. It’s just that simple. In Post Office, we meet a sad sack who works at a post office and wakes up every day with a wicked hangover; Henry Chinaski is a middle-aged mail carrier with a lot of bile and very few nice things to say about the world. Every guy in his early 20s who I’ve met loves this book, but it can be a hard one to get through for some ladies.

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky

Rosa Achmetowna, the narrator of Alina Bronsky’s new book, is one nasty grandma. She does everything in her power to stop her daughter’s pregnancy, and then when the baby is born she softens a bit, only to begin a crusade to strip her daughter, Sulfia, of parental rights. She is verbally and emotionally abusive, and relentless. But in the end, you might start to like her a little. Maybe.

The She-Devil in the Mirror by Horacio Castellanos Moya

Laura Rivera is our unreliable narrator in this story about a woman who was murdered in cold blood. Rivera is a completely neurotic, judgmental, wealthy woman living in El Salvador who dispenses prejudiced information on the reader as if it were fact. She fears for her own life after her close friend was killed, but since she doesn’t know what the motive is yet, she succumbs to speculation and a general feeling of dread.

The End of Alice by A.M. Homes

We included this novel in our disturbing books post because of its despicable narrator. Chappy is an unrepentant pedophile and murderer who is serving time in Sing-Sing, and we are privy to him reminiscing about his time with his twelve-year-old victim, Alice. This late ’90s novel is not for the faint of heart.

We Need to Talk About Kevin: A Novel by Lionel Shriver

We need to talk about why this novel is so creepy. In it, we find that Kevin has just killed seven students and two adults, and his mother is trying to find out why. When Eva visits her son in prison, she realizes that “now he doesn’t have to worry which he is — a freak or a geek, a grid or a jock or a nerd…he’s a murderer.” This book has been making women who choose to not have children feel a hell of a lot better about their decision, we’re sure.

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

Bret Easton Ellis is known for his unlikeable narrators — they are often self-absorbed, tight-lipped sociopaths with a penchant for murder, pristine business cards, and designer shoes. Patrick Bateman loves to name drop, especially when dining at ridiculously posh restaurants, and he also enjoys throwing chainsaws at fleeing prostitutes. It’s a boring novel when you get beyond the gore, and it’s ultimately one with little payoff, but we read it anyway because we’re either titillated, enjoying the ennui, or trying to understand how in the world Bateman became so screwed up. With Ellis, you know you’re never going to get beyond the surface, and he’s unapologetic about this fact.