25th November 2013

Dysfunctional families in American literature

As Americans look towards spending quality family time together during Thanksgiving, Katie Myerscough examines some of the most dysfunctional families in American literature

American Pastoral by Philip Roth

A devastating Philip Roth masterpiece, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel traces the disintegration of middle class athlete-turned-businessman Seymour ‘The Swede’ Levov’s first marriage and his complete estrangement from his daughter-turned-domestic terrorist Merry. The novel, set in 1960s’ Newark, uses the political and social furore of the time as a backdrop for Levov’s unravelling. Nathan Zuckerman (Roth’s oft-used literary stand-in) narrates and attempts to piece together Levov’s story from a few newspaper clippings, chance meetings and half-remembered stories. Stunning in scope and execution, this novel stands as one of Roth’s finest and as a powerful evocation of the end of the American Dream.

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

They don’t come much more dysfunctional than the Lisbon family in Jeffrey Eugenides’ 1993 debut The Virgin Suicides.  The suicides of the five girls of the family are narrated by a huddle of teenage boys who, years later, are still fascinated and nonplussed by the girls’ short lives and tragic deaths. This slim novel is set in 1970s’ Grosse Point, Michigan and is richly descriptive and evocative. A sense of melancholy hangs over the narrators as they pick through the Lisbon’s trash trying to find clues that would point to the reasons behind the girls’ deaths. As readers, we join them, on the outside looking in, trying to make sense of the insensible.

Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

A complicated, involved and difficult novel, this is ultimately a rewarding if rather frustrating read. Some of the frustration comes from the impossibility of pinning down the Sutpen family, the reasons for their rise and the designs behind their complete collapse in the antebellum South. While nothing is certain, what is clear is that issues of sexual jealousy, incest, and fears of miscegenation circle and encompass the Sutpen family. This allows Faulkner to raise (if not answer) questions of race and gender, memory and motivation, triumph and tragedy.

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