8 of the Strangest Families in Literature


Today marks the release of one of the summer’s most buzzed-about — and greatest — novels, Matt Bell’s dreamlike In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods. Without giving anything away, the book features a very strange family indeed, and so to accompany its release, Flavorwire has asked Bell to suggest some other fabulist, weird literary families worth your attention. Check out Bell’s picks after the jump, and if your own favorite bizarre literary family has been ludicrously misplaced here, add it to the list in the comments.

The Complete Tales of Lucy Gold/Merry Gold/Ketzia Gold , Kate Bernheimer

Kate Bernheimer’s three books of fairy tales about the Gold sisters are among the finest examples of contemporary fairy tales, and their focus on the family — and how one can be estranged and alone even inside a family — make them some of the most emotionally affecting books I’ve read, especially when read together. All of the books fuse fairy tale aspects into contemporary suburban lives, and Merry Gold, narrating her volume of the trilogy, explains her own connection to the place of her childhood, and to the life she lived there: “Ah, the suburbs. I’ve found that living somewhere that reminds me of childhood is important to me. Why? There are, I have learned, theories that say childhood is far more vivid than any experience one could have later in life. Seeing, feeling, smelling, hearing, and tasting in childhood reach the level of depravity, this theory says. Some call this rapture, others bliss. I cannot say that my depravity has ever reached the level of happiness, but I do find that when my life is as orderly as it was at home, I am closest to fine.”

The Flame Alphabet , Ben Marcus

The family in Ben Marcus’s newest novel lives in a world in which speech has suddenly become dangerous, sickening anyone who hears another talking — but especially, in the beginning, parents who can’t escape the toxic talk of their children. The protagonist of The Flame Alphabet opens his telling of the story with one of the most emotional choices possible, the decision to abandon his daughter, to save his own life and the life of his wife: “We left on a school day,” he tells us, “so Esther wouldn’t see us” — and everything that follows spins out of this abandonment of parental duty, the rest of the book morally complicated by what occurs in the very first sentence.

Log of the S.S. the Mrs Unguentine , Stanley Crawford

Without a doubt, Crawford’s Mrs Unguentine is one of the most compelling narrators I’ve ever encountered — but she is also known to the reader only by her relation to her husband Unguentine, because on the day of their wedding their priest made her drop all her names, “maiden, first and middle, the result being Mrs Unguentine,” but Mrs Unguentine quickly emerges as her own woman, unowned despite the possessiveness of her naming. Each of the book’s chapters is longer than the previous one, and the second chapter, quoted here in full, contains the entirety of their marriage, by one way of telling: “Forty years ago I first linked up with Unguentine and we made love on twin-hulled catamarans, sails a-billow, bless the seas, but Unguentine — now dead after a bloody eventless life — turned out to be a ferocious bastard who beat me within an inch of my life everywhere we sighted land, not because of me, not for land, but for drink, he with his bent for alcohol up to the very last moment when his grey lips touched the blue sea for the final time, moment of his death. Suicide. So I sailed that ship, I sailed it every nautical inch of our marriage.”

We Make Mud , Peter Markus

The parents in Peter Markus’s We Make Mud are distant and slightly unknowable, appearing only rarely to intrude upon the world of the two brothers who narrate the many stories that make up this fine book, full of haunting repetitions and sudden turns of violence: “I was hammering in another nail into Brother’s other hand when our father stepped out into the back of the yard. Son, our father called this word out. Us brothers — us, our father’s sons — we turned back our boy heads toward the sound of our father. We waited to hear what it was that our father was going to say to us brothers next. It was a long few seconds. The sky above the river, the black metal mill shipwrecked down by the river’s muddy shores, it was dark and quiet. Somewhere, we were sure, the sun was shining. You boys be sure to clean up out there before you come back in, our father said. Our father turned back his back. Us brothers turned to face back each other. I raised back that hammer. I lined up that rusted nail.”

The Animal Family , Randall Jarrell

My editor Mark Doten at Soho Press was the one who first brought The Animal Family to my attention, shortly after reading my In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods for the first time, when he rightly pointed out that the books had certain broad similarities: In Jarrell’s gorgeous The Animal Family, the protagonist, a lonely hunter, makes a family for himself out of the surrounding natural world, bringing to his house a “mermaid” that he falls in love with, and then other family members, including a bear, a lynx, and eventually a boy, who joins this family that is somehow happy and sad, both and neither: “The days went by for him, all different and all the same. The boy was happy, and yet he didn’t know that he was happy, exactly: he couldn’t remember having been unhappy. If one day as he played at the edge of the forest some talking bird had flown down and asked him: ‘Do you like your life’ he would not have known what to say, but would have asked the bird: ‘Can you not like it?'”

The Chronicles of Narnia , C.S. Lewis

One of the most persistent tropes in books with child protagonists is that, in order to grant the protagonists agency, the children have to be orphaned in some manner. Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy Pevensie aren’t technically orphans at the opening of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but they have been sent away from their parents, which grants them extra freedom in our world — and then, once they discover Narnia, they find themselves even more free, suddenly budding heroes, kings- and queens-to-be. As a kid, I identified with the rivalries and petty jealousies between the siblings as well as with their love for each other, love that lasted no matter what decisions they each made. Reading the books again as an adult, I also remembered my sadness at the end of the series, when Susan, the elder sister, is seemingly expelled from the group, no longer a “friend of Narnia,” supposedly “interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations.” Susan leaves the story by a different method than the other Pevensie children, “orphaned” already once by her parents for being too young to stay in London during the war, and then again, by her siblings, for being too grown up to stay in Narnia.

Swamplandia! , Karen Russell

In the first pages of Swamplandia!, Ava Bigtree says, “I was thirteen years old when the end of Swamplandia! began in earnest, although at first I was oblivious of the dangers we now faced — Mom was dead, so I thought the worst had already happened to us. I didn’t realize that one tragedy can beget another, and another — bright-eyed disasters flooding out of a death hole like bats out of a cave.” From there, those tragedies continue to build and to grow, as each family member is for a time lost to different circumstances: sister Osceola to her pursuit of her ghost boyfriends; brother Kiwi to The World of Darkness, a mainland amusement park; and her father to a secret life as a casino worker, far from the mythology he’s build for his family. In the end, Ava is left alone in Swamplandia! — the excitement of that exclamation point continually tarnishing, turning sinister — and from there she embarks on her own adventure, still believing the worst has already happened, perhaps unready for all the swamp and danger she has left to cross before being reunited with her family.

The Road , Cormac McCarthy

The father in The Road loses everything as he tries to protect his son from the worst world imaginable. Is there anything more heartbreaking than a father who would do anything for his child, in a world where nothing will ever be sufficient? The book is full of moments where the father recognizes this inevitability, each one a terrible repetition, a truth unable to be changed or avoided: “He sat beside him and stroked his pale and tangled hair. Golden chalice, good to house a god. Please dont tell me how the story ends.”