4x4th Estate: Bizarre Families in Literature

Families are weird. We pretend to others that we’re normal, but we secretly wear our family ‘weird’ as a badge of honour. You know you wouldn’t really want to trade up Mum’s creepy porcelain doll collection, Dad’s irrational fear of Morris dancers, or your brother’s love of ketchup and banana sandwiches for anything. Here are a few families of fiction that are perhaps even more bizarre than our own.

The Gladney Family (White Noise by Don DeLillo)

White NoiseJack Gladney is a Professor of Hitler Studies, but he can’t speak German. He’s been married five times, has four kids and both he and his current wife are regularly on the edge of an existential meltdown from their shared, crippling fear of death. It must be quite an intense Christmas at their house.

A chemical spill in town releases a poisonous cloud of gas that behaves with a mind of its own. Later, out of total desperation, Babette, Jack’s wife, gains access to an experimental drug which claims to remove the fear of death, but it has some very odd side effects.

This novel is as peculiar as it sounds, but is written with such mastery and composure, and a sprawling analysis of modern consumerism, media obsession and the breakdown and reformation of the family. Terrifying and brilliant. Distopic and wry.


The Glass Family (Various novels and short stories by J.D. Salinger)

SalingerThey’re a precocious bunch, the children of the Glass family. Just to give you an idea, Seymour – the eldest – became a professor at Columbia University by the age of 20. All of them appeared on the fictional radio quiz show It’s a Wise Child, respected nationally. But, growing older, they all seem to struggle with their own brilliance and adjusting to adult life.

Many say the Glass family were the inspiration for the Wes Anderson cult classic ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’. In both, the children are prodigies, all with a love of theatre, literature, forming intelligent opinions and struggling to find meaning in life. The curious dynamic works as well on screen as on page.

We see the Glass children suffering sequences of spiritual malaise and emotional breakdown, yet we secretly wish we were one of them.


The Lambert Family (The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen)

the-correctionsIn her twilight years, Enid wants to relax with her husband and enjoy the time they have left together, but Alfred, her husband, is starting to lose his mind. Their children have long since grown up and moved out to lead their own troubled and indecent lives.
Chip was a Marxist academic who loses his job after an affair with a student, so starts working for a Lithuanian gangster and cheating people out of their money. Gary is a successful banker, but is tortured by misery and addicted to alcohol. Denise is a successful chef who loses her job after having a fling with her both her boss and his wife. Yikes.

Their fractured lives come together as Enid tries to make it a happy Christmas in their family home, in amongst the strain of mental illness. A portrait of domestic realism and hardship in modern America yet woefully intelligent and likeable.


The Garp Family (The World According to Garp by John Irving)

GarpT. S. Garp is conceived by a nurse who doesn’t want a husband, and a dying gun turret sergeant who is heavily brain damaged in combat. He is born as ‘T. S. Garp’, ‘T. S.’ being his first name, from his father, a ‘technical sergeant’. After finishing school, mother and son move to Vienna where Garp befriends prostitutes and tries to write his first novel, while his mother writes the commended feminist autobiography A Sexual Suspect and inadvertently generates a new movement of feminism in America. Garp has dreams of being a writer, too, but is plagued by the burden of his mother’s success.
Returning to America and marrying his childhood sweetheart of sorts, Garp enjoys moderate success as a writer. His first son loses an eye in a peculiar car accident, the family adopt a girl who is the unwitting figurehead for an extremist feminist movement where they cut out their own tongues, and Garp’s best friend is a former professional football player turned transsexual. Witty and loveable, grounded yet totally bizarre.


Words by Laurence Berridge

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