Pass the Chaos

Pass the Chaos

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Relatives driving you crazy this Thanksgiving? It could always be worse. Much worse. For a little perspective, check out Zola’s favorite books about family dysfunction.

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The Great Santini
Pat Conroy

Marine fighter pilot Bull Meecham rules his family with an iron fist—until his eldest son, Ben, takes a stand. Having grown up in a strict military family himself, author Pat Conroy has said, “One of the greatest gifts you can get as a writer is to be born into an unhappy family.”

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Oedipus the King
Sophocles

First you kill your father. Then you marry—and bed—your mother. Your mother hangs herself, and you stick pins in your eyes. No one does familial discord better than the ancient Greeks.

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We Need to Talk About Kevin
Lion Shriver

Just how responsible was Eva for the high school massacre perpetrated by her son, Kevin? Recipient of the 2005 Orange Prize, Lionel Shriver’s epistolary novel is a chilling look at a family for whom “dysfunctional” is a kind description.

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Rabbit, Run
John Updike

John Updike’s era-defining work—one of Time’s “100 Best Novels”—tells the story of former high school basketball star Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom and his impulsive decision to abandon his wife and son. According to Updike, the book was written in reaction to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road: “I resented its apparent instruction to cut loose; Rabbit, Run was meant to be a realistic demonstration of what happens when a young American family man goes on the road—the people left behind get hurt.”

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Running with Scissors
Augusten Burroughs

At once disturbing and darkly humorous, Running With Scissors is the true story of a boy whose unstable mother turns him over to be raised by her equally bonkers psychiatrist. Valium, pot, and electroshock-therapy machines are among young Augusten Burrough’s playthings in this lawless household.

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The Godfather
Mario Puzo

The Corleones aren’t just a family but a Family. As such, they settle disputes with guns, piano wire, and horse heads. For his mafia classic, Mario Puzo was as much influenced by Dostoyevsky—his favorite author—as the organized crime tales he overheard while working as a pulp magazine writer.

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Look Homeward, Angel
Thomas Wolfe

Thomas Wolfe had much to say about his abusive father and otherwise tempestuous Southern upbringing in his autobiographical first novel. Too much, in fact. The original manuscript of Look Homeward, Angel was slashed by more than 60,000 words at the behest of editor Maxwell Perkins, who also edited F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

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King Lear
William Shakespeare

When King Lear generously divides his land among his daughters, they repay him by banishing him from their homes and forcing him to endure both the elements and the maddening company of the doublespeaking Fool. “No man will ever write a better tragedy than Lear,” claimed George Bernard Shaw.

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The Virgin Suicides
Jeffrey Eugenides

Set in 1970s suburban Detroit, Jeffrey Eugenides’s 1993 debut novel tells the story of the five teenage Lisbon sisters as they each commit suicide, one by one, over the course of a year. While the book is about a family’s unraveling, it’s also about the demise of a city. “When I was born, Detroit was the fourth-largest city in the country,” Eugenides told The Paris Review. “But people were already beginning to flee, and in 1967, when the riots occurred, the trickle turned into a flood…I grew up watching houses and buildings fall apart and then disappear. It imbued my sense of the world with a strong elegiac quality—a direct experience of the fragility and evanescence of the material world. That was what I was really writing about.”

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Death of a Salesman
Arthur Miller

Father-son angst has arguably never been better captured than in Arthur Miller’s 1949 Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Interestingly, sad-sack patriarch Willy Lohman was modeled not on Miller’s father—a wealthy clothier until the 1929 stockmarket crash wiped out his savings—but on a salesman uncle.

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Helter Skelter
Vincent Bugliosi & Curt Gentry

The members of the Manson Family cult lived together, slept together, and ritualistically murdered Sharon Tate and Leno and Rosemary LaBianca in the summer of 1969. Co-authored by the prosecuting attorney who put Charles Manson in prison for life, Helter Skelter—winner of the 1975 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Fact Crime Book—closely examines this family’s heinous crimes.

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The Middlesteins
Jami Attenburg

It’s one thing to be cheated on. But in the case of Richard Middlestein, he loses his wife of 30-plus years, Edie, not to another lover but to her diabetes-causing obsession with food. Jami Attenberg’s 2012 novel is a fresh take on the vices and desires which can rend a family.

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The Corrections
Jonathan Franzen

A father afflicted with Parkinson’s, a son in denial of his clinical depression, a daughter sleeping with a married man: 11 years since its publication, Jonathan Franzen’s blockbuster novel is still considered by many the high-watermark for family disharmony in 21st Century fiction.

This article originally appeared on Zola Books.

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