Bring me the unlikeable characters!
June 3, 2021 7:14 AM   Subscribe

I want to read books with unhappy endings, angst and drama, body horror, miserable relationships, etc. Absolutely no redemption! If the writing is experimental, all the better.

Authors I've enjoyed: Tanith Lee, Ann Quin, Anna Kavan. Read "The Woman Upstairs" which inspired this question, as it has an "unlikeable" protagonist (that's a whole other debate). Recently finished Terminal Boredom and liked that.

Any author or character race/gender/sexuality is fine!
posted by kingdead to Media & Arts (82 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
 
I hate to recommend them, but that sounds a lot like you'd enjoy Song of Ice and Fire books. The Game of Thrones books by George RR Martin.
posted by Grither at 7:16 AM on June 3


I will say I'm not a big fan of this book although it did get very good reviews and was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize (I actually didn't finish it so the character might be redeemed at the end altho I would be surprised). Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh fits your needs very well.
posted by Ideal Impulse at 7:17 AM on June 3 [3 favorites]


Jacob Strane in My Dark Vanessa is an unlikeable character, his relationship with Vanessa Wye is miserable, and he is not redeemed.
posted by my log does not judge at 7:24 AM on June 3 [1 favorite]


The Snakes by Sadie Jones.
posted by carolr at 7:25 AM on June 3


I will say I'm not a big fan of this book although it did get very good reviews and was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize (I actually didn't finish it so the character might be redeemed at the end altho I would be surprised). Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh fits your needs very well

I love that book and was going to recommend it as well.

Another book that won prizes and critical acclaim but definitely a lot of people find unpleasant to read for all the reasons you list and more is the Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:26 AM on June 3


+1 for Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh.
posted by Jeanne at 7:27 AM on June 3 [1 favorite]


Marieke Lucas Rijneveld - The Discomfort of Evening
Samuel Beckett - How It Is
Thirding Moshfegh
Nabokov - Ada or Ardor
José Donoso - The Obscene Bird of Night
Margarita Karapanou - Kassandra and the Wolf
Elfriede Jelinek - The Piano Teacher
Sara Mesa - Four by Four
posted by RGD at 7:29 AM on June 3 [1 favorite]


Infinite Jest fits just about every aspect of your question. There may be a small amount of redemption for some of the vast cast of characters but it's pretty darned bleak.
posted by london explorer girl at 7:31 AM on June 3


Anything by Lionel Shriver.
posted by wellred at 7:35 AM on June 3 [2 favorites]


YES I love this question.

Firstly, Roxane Gay's essay 'Not Here To Make Friends' is a great primer on the topic of unlikeability in female characters. From that essay, I learned about Sara Levine's Treasure Island!!!, which is a hilarious read about a grown woman obsessed with the book Treasure Island (at the cost of her relationships and job).

Also, I'd really, strongly recommend Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. Chocked full of body horror and whip smart prose centered on a fucked up carny family, this book haunted me for a while.
posted by Paper rabies at 7:41 AM on June 3 [15 favorites]


Sounds like you would like Continental Drift, by Russell Banks. It's a bleak novel featuring a series of increasingly horrible events.
posted by alex1965 at 7:42 AM on June 3


So nice to see Ann Quin and Anna Kavan appreciation!

In reference to Quin, would second the Samuel Beckett recommendations, also Natalie Sarraute, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Michel Butor and the French Nouveau Roman generally.

In reference to Kavan, if you enjoyed 'Ice', then J.G.Ballard would be an appropriate next step, if you haven't already gone there.

Also: Unica Zurn ('Dark Spring', 'The Trumpets of Jericho') and Gabrielle Wittkopp (try 'Murder Most Serene' or 'Exemplary Departures'), Taeko Kono (not much in English but 'Toddler Hunting and Other Stories' is amazing).

Seconding the Jose Donoso 'The Obscene Bird of Night' recommendations as well - that is an amazing piece of work.

In terms of people writing now: Audrey Szasz, Gary J. Shipley (who definitely hits the intersection of 'experimental' and 'body horror' like no-one else), New Juche, Blake Butler.
posted by remembrancer at 7:43 AM on June 3 [1 favorite]


Nabokov's Despair? (And also other books by the same author, including Ada and Lolita.)
posted by eotvos at 7:45 AM on June 3 [1 favorite]


What you want to read is There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby, an excellent collection of "scary fairy tales" by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.

I also just finished The Hunger by Alma Katsu and it is so disturbing and full of loathsome characters. Loved it.

The ultimate in this genre for me is the memoir Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller. Gave me nightmares.
posted by RobinofFrocksley at 7:52 AM on June 3 [1 favorite]


The bleakness of The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson was a bit Too Much for me, but perhaps it's what you're looking for. It's the first in an ongoing series.
posted by esker at 7:52 AM on June 3 [4 favorites]


Sarah Rose Etter's The Book of X may also scratch the same itch. Surreal body horror, at times bleak and funny.

Kristen Roupenian's short story collection You Know You Want This (sometimes called Cat Person after the viral NYer story) is also very this. Many of the stories are considerably weirder and darker than the famous one.
posted by Paper rabies at 7:53 AM on June 3


I think I may recommend Crome Yellow for nearly every type of book rec ask, because it ticks so many boxes. If you want a lighthearted romp with a lousy main character, with likeable descriptions of really tiresome people, Crome Yellow is great. It's set at a manor house in the 20s and if you think that early Downton Abbey Mary is the best version of herself (sniping, sarcastic, bitter), you will enjoy this.

No: body horror, dark themes
Yes: protagonist hates himself so he's constantly miserable, all relationships are awful, everyone is a self important snob, the book makes fun of all of them, unhappy ending
posted by phunniemee at 8:01 AM on June 3 [1 favorite]


China Miéville's Perdido Street Station ticks many of your boxes, if you're okay with speculative fiction. The one prominent relationship isn't particularly unhappy (or particularly prominent) but it satisfies all the rest in spades.
posted by valrus at 8:03 AM on June 3 [3 favorites]


If you want to really lean into the body horror and misery and abjection and weird genre shit, then Gretchen Felker-Martin (previously) might be up your alley. Her first three books are self-published and really lean into a less-marketable pit of horror and disgust. Lavish, scabby, unctuous prose if that's your jam. Nobody's likeable or redeemable but everyone who matters is treated with queasy, gut-wrenching empathy. Ego Homini Lupus is an immersive, relentless nightmare.
posted by fountainofdoubt at 8:11 AM on June 3


Also by Ottessa Moshfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation.

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata.

Both strong on the body horror in there.
posted by damayanti at 8:16 AM on June 3 [5 favorites]


Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country is one of my favorite books and the wonderfully named protagonist, Undine Spragg, is one of literature's great terrible humans.
posted by anotheraccount at 8:18 AM on June 3


Halle Butler's "Jillian" or "The New Me"

"Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism" by David Nickle, with a cw for eugenics and body horror

I think you might enjoy some Rachel Ingalls. She doesn't go in for body horror, but her characters tend to be lost in fogs of their own misery - the men are especially unlikeable for it.
posted by snerson at 8:27 AM on June 3


Seconding Traitor Baru Cormorant!

Traitor Baru shows Baru's growing conviction that the world is bleak and cruel. The later books challenge that belief--overall it's a much kinder arc than you might expect, but there's still plenty of plague and body horror to go around.
posted by yarntheory at 8:32 AM on June 3 [1 favorite]


Two more, now that I've sat and thought about it -- Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. Also, more longwindedly, the Kristin Lavransdatter books. It only really starts getting miserable in book 2, when Kristin marries the guy who seduced her, but the relationship misery is pretty good, and I think you could start in book 2 without too much fuss.
posted by snerson at 8:33 AM on June 3 [2 favorites]


Anything by Svetlana Alexievich, but specifically Voices from Chernobyl.
posted by matrixclown at 8:41 AM on June 3


Gillian Flynn absolutely hits this niche for me: a lot of her work explicitly deals with unpleasant female protagonists. I'd start with Gone Girl or Sharp Objects.

I also would consider Thomas Olde Heuvelt's HEX, which is extremely atmospheric horror but has a bleak ending.

And Lev Grossman's The Magicians?
posted by angst at 8:41 AM on June 3 [2 favorites]


After reading Chaim Potok's "The Promise" (sequel to "The Chosen") and "My Name is Asher Lev" (prequel to "The Gift of Asher Lev"), I felt depressed and bummed because the conclusion was that no one was going to budge from their hardline opinions, at the expense of human kindness.

The Hunger Games?

Ethan Frome?

Anna Karenina?

The Bell Jar?
posted by Melismata at 8:46 AM on June 3 [1 favorite]


Her Body And Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado? Doesn't hit all your items but the ones it does, it hits hard. Brilliant and brutal.
posted by february at 8:50 AM on June 3 [5 favorites]


Emphatic yes to Eileen and Earthlings.

Baby Teeth by Zoge Stage.

The Bridesmaid by Ruth Rendell is not that sort of hardcore body horror but there is enough of it. It's a good book to try if you are curious about Rendell's standalone thrillers.
posted by BibiRose at 8:52 AM on June 3


K J Parker’s books are sort of historical competence-fantasy romps, but as I finish them the view of what’s really going on and who’s forgivable gets bleaker and bleaker. Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is a short standalone place to start.
posted by clew at 8:55 AM on June 3 [1 favorite]


Gone girl. Was sick to my stomach by the end.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:58 AM on June 3


paper rabies nailed it. none more body horror than Geek Love. i was taken by surprise, and pretty much need the unobtainable brain bleach. not my cup of tea. it's terrific writing, and a compelling narrative, but maaaannnn....
posted by j_curiouser at 9:03 AM on June 3 [2 favorites]


A Clockwork Orange definitely belongs on your list.
posted by tomboko at 9:17 AM on June 3 [2 favorites]


Marlon James' Black Leopard, Red Wolf has all the angst, misery, and body horror a reader could desire, and the prose is stunning. I liked the main character on the whole, but he's an ambivalent and tragic figure.
posted by toastedcheese at 9:21 AM on June 3 [1 favorite]


Salinger's short story A Perfect Day for Bananfish fits, I think.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:24 AM on June 3


Iain M Banks is your dude. The first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas, has everything you’re looking for. If you like the Culture, Use Of Weapons is the next most unpleasant.

Of his non-Culture books, I’ve read The Wasp Factory which is extremely nasty, brutish and short. You might like it.
posted by Pallas Athena at 9:26 AM on June 3 [6 favorites]


Robin Hobb has an extremely low opinion of humanity and her books are chock-full of unlikeable people doing unlikeable things. She's a really good writer, but I have to brace for her books. The Liveship Traders trilogy in particular is just unbearably dark and depressing for me, so it might be perfect for you! (These are alternate-world fantasy books, so if that's not your thing, so be it.)
posted by restless_nomad at 9:34 AM on June 3 [3 favorites]


The Street by Ann Petry is an incredible novel but absolutely gut-wrenching.
posted by thebots at 9:40 AM on June 3


Response by poster: Thank you for all the lovely recommendations so far! (And for those who recommended Eileen and Gretchen Felker-Martin--read em and you have good taste!)
posted by kingdead at 9:43 AM on June 3


The Slap, by Christos Tsiolkas. Guarantee you will hate nearly every single person in the book, including the children. Especially the children.
posted by holborne at 9:46 AM on June 3 [3 favorites]


Logging in here for the first time in a little while to say that you are without question looking for The Cipher by Kathe Koja. It ticks every single one of your boxes multiple times and is a masterpiece of experimental horror. Recently reissued in trade paperback!
posted by eugenen at 9:54 AM on June 3 [2 favorites]


Try Luckenbooth. The main character is the daughter of the Devil, whom she has killed, but it doesn’t slow him down much. It is sort of the history of an Edinburgh tenement where lots of bad people live over the years and do appalling things. In the end the whole place collapses, revealing corpses and possibly releasing ghosts, but not exactly a happy ever after,
posted by Phanx at 9:55 AM on June 3


The Tunnel by William Gass. A brilliantly experimental, horrible, monster of a book. I wouldn't usually recommend this because I don't want to inflict it on anyone but it's everything you are looking for.
posted by Lorin at 10:16 AM on June 3


I came to give a qualified recommendation for 'A Clockwork Orange', too. Qualified because there are two versions of the book - one in which our droog experiences a change of heart, and one in which he doesn't.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 10:22 AM on June 3


I found this book deeply unsettling - After by Claire Tristram
posted by rw at 10:33 AM on June 3


And even in the 21st chapter Alex still thinks women are things to use.
posted by brujita at 10:33 AM on June 3


Auto da fé.
posted by kickingtheground at 10:40 AM on June 3


Elizabeth Hand's Cass Neary series of mysteries. I've only read the first but I remember thinking how unlikeable yet incredibly compelling Cass Neary was as a character.
posted by Constance Mirabella at 11:13 AM on June 3 [2 favorites]


Well dang you should with all possible haste go read Gideon the Ninth followed by Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir.

I love these books and they are deviously hilarious and there is so much body horror and so, so, so many appalling characters, each appalling in their own special way.

I can't wait for the next one.
posted by seanmpuckett at 11:21 AM on June 3 [3 favorites]


Some of the characters [and body-parts] in Roald Dahl's short story collections Kiss Kiss and Someone Like You are wholly repellent [✓].
And let's hear it for 'orrible little boys in Saki's Sredni-Vastar [MetaPrev]
posted by BobTheScientist at 11:32 AM on June 3 [1 favorite]


Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell

Leave the World Behind, by Rumaan Alam (dystopian, near-future)

You Think It, I’ll Say It, by Curtis Sittenfeld (short stories)

Sabrina, by Nick Drnaso (graphic novel)
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:01 PM on June 3 [1 favorite]


A bit of a strange recommendation, but Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series is sort of half like this. The two main characters are interesting and become very good friends over time, but they're also pig-headed, foolish, bizarre, mistake-making creatures. In other words they feel very real, and you like and dislike them the way you like and dislike a friend who ticks you off half the time. I've read the first three books and have both cheered and cringed at their decisions and approaches.

I'd also caution you against the Kingkiller series by Rothfuss. Its narrative is supposedly embellished by an egotistical teller, but what it amounts to is the world's biggest Gary Stu and I ended up disliking the whole thing. It really doesn't get truly bad until the second book, though.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 12:12 PM on June 3


I am surprised no one has mentioned Donna Tart's The Secret History yet. It certainly hits all your buttons, and is quite gripping.
posted by JonJacky at 12:48 PM on June 3 [3 favorites]


You might enjoy Flan.
posted by saladin at 12:55 PM on June 3


How on EARTH has no one said Wuthering Heights
posted by aws17576 at 1:04 PM on June 3 [7 favorites]


The Library At Mount Char by Scott Hawkins seems like it would be nigh close to perfect for you.

(PS Tanith Lee is one of my favorite all time authors, I smiled so big when I saw her on your list)
posted by WalkerWestridge at 1:21 PM on June 3


How about the decline and fall of Sicilian minor nobility? Lampedusa's The Leopard is full of decay, slow death, unpleasant surroundings, uncomfortable relationships, and the end of a way of being. I kept hoping for some relief from the grim downhill arc, but nope!
posted by MonkeyToes at 2:09 PM on June 3 [1 favorite]


William S. Burroughs and J. G. Ballard come to mind. (+1 for Geek Love)
posted by chbrooks at 2:19 PM on June 3 [2 favorites]


Oh yeah, Wuthering Heights is a good answer, as is Anne's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
posted by saladin at 2:51 PM on June 3


Seconding Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam. I felt like I needed tons of self-care after reading this book because not only are the characters unlikeable, but the author clearly writes them with a sneer. Plenty of puke, dental emergencies, and miserable relationships. Very readable, I think it fits your qualifications perfectly but beware it's a mess and there is no resolution.

Also nthing Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. All the characters are depraved in many ways, but the author still made me root for the "villain." Also plenty of blood.

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir as mentioned above is filled with bodies all falling apart, used in macabre ways, but also a mystery must be solved. The characters were all completely unappealing to me.

And the monarch of all unlikable character books for me must certainly be A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. The only thing that redeems my suffering hours spent finishing this book is that I can recommend it to you right now. Great for endless rumination about indigestion and how disgusting/stupid everyone is. It kind of has a positive ending, but ugh, this book did not age well.
posted by oxisos at 3:22 PM on June 3 [5 favorites]


You want Tom Wolf's The Bonfire of the Vanities. I hated every single character.
posted by theBigRedKittyPurrs at 3:39 PM on June 3 [2 favorites]


Some of the most awful tire fire shit I've ever read has been by Hubert Selby Jr. and Jerzy Kosinski, so you could take those for a spin.
posted by turbid dahlia at 6:15 PM on June 3


I'm only halfway through, so maybe there's going to be some redemption, but it seems highly unlikely given what jerks all the characters are so far: The Atmospherians, by Alex McElroy.
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:45 PM on June 3


Such a lovely long list of books I would hate.

Talking it Over by Julian Barnes. I only finished it because it was for book club. And it appears that there's a sequel that you'd have to pay me so much to read.

I love Kazuo Ishiguro's later books, but An Artist of the Floating World, whilst similar in theme to The Remains of the Day, has a stunningly unlikeable main character.
posted by kjs4 at 7:02 PM on June 3


The Wolf and the Watchman by Niklas Natt och Dag ticks all your boxes (and then some) and is truly revolting almost from the very first page. I could not finish it. If you decide to try it please, please read some reviews first.
posted by flowergrrrl at 7:35 PM on June 3


I came to recommend A Confederacy of Dunces and am pleased to see it has already been. I haven't read The Goldfinch but Donna Tartt's other two books, The Secret History and The Little Friend definitely work - there was a character I found likeable in The Little Friend but the book left me feeling nauseated and sick even though I couldn't stop reading it until I finished it.

I read John Updike's The Witches of Eastwick in high school and thoroughly loathed everything about it, including the characters, so that might be a goer as well.

I can't remember liking any of the characters in David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and many I thoroughly loathed. A rare case where the movie was better than the book (even with Tom Hanks) because you missed the interior life of the loathsome characters. Also bonus points for possibly experimental structure.

Andrew McGahan's The Rich Man's House had a large number of unlikeable characters and lots of horrific stuff. Fascinating and unputdownable though.
posted by Athanassiel at 7:36 PM on June 3


> Iain M Banks is your dude. The first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas, has everything you’re looking for.

"Chapter 6: The Eaters" is probably the only time where reading a book has left me physically nauseated. I just made the mistake of re-reading a bit of it. Why did I do that to myself. Ugh.

> My friend Susan refers to this part of the book as “the island of the barf people and that dude with the teeth.” It’s the part that both of us instantly thought of as being nearly unfilmable for sheer grotesquerie of content when we heard about the Consider Phlebas TV adaptation. You stand warned.

-- The Culture Reread: No More Mr. Nice Guy (Consider Phlebas, Part 3)
posted by are-coral-made at 8:04 PM on June 3 [1 favorite]


George Simenon's Red Lights or Dirty Snow both feature loathsome protagonists with no redeeming virtues.

Dorothy B. Hughes's In a Lonely Place is a far grimmer story than the Bogart movie it was adapted into.

Elliott Chaze's Black Wings Has My Angel follows a disagreeable couple as they pull off an armored car heist.
posted by clockwork at 8:38 PM on June 3 [2 favorites]


Flannery O’Conor wrote many sharp, unnerving short stories fully populated by bad people.

A Good Man Is Hard To Find
Good Country People

A good friend loves this kind of writing, too, and one of his favorites is Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. It goes quickly, as a read! And they are awful to each other.
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 9:40 PM on June 3


I quite like him, but many people find the protagonist of Sabbath’s Theatre by Philip Roth to be loathsome. The body-horror in that book is limited only to sexual humiliation.

nthing Geek Love - also adding Pale Fire to the list of Nabokov books with delusional narrators
posted by rd45 at 1:18 AM on June 4


I think we have completely opposite tastes in fiction. Let me list some books I didn't enjoy.

are-coral-made on Consider Phlebas: My friend Susan refers to this part of the book as “the island of the barf people and that dude with the teeth.”

Yep, I too will never reread Consider Phlebas because of that chapter. For similar body-horror reasons, I will never reread Mary Doria Russell's excellent science fiction novel The Sparrow.

I really wanted to like Jonathan Coe's What a Carve Up!, but there were just so many horrible people in it, I couldn't. (It's satirical and they are meant to be horrible, but...) I don't think anyone got a happy ending, as such. The next book of his I tried, Number 11, turned out to be a sequel of sorts, with some of the same horrible people making appearances.

Scarlett Thomas is very good, but I bounced hard off The Seed Collectors because I didn't like any of the characters enough to want to spend any more time in their company, with the possible exception of the robin. I'd definitely describe it as experimental.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 1:54 AM on June 4


Liz nuggent is very good at this!
posted by pairofshades at 4:59 AM on June 4


No body horror but terrible relationship and two horribly unlikeable characters: Carola Lovering, Tell Me Lies.
posted by Fuego at 8:21 AM on June 4


Speaking of Ishiguro, you may also want to check out The Unconsoled. The (unreliable) narrator is a bona fide asshole and there is absolutely no redemption or resolution. I don't recall any body horror or puke but it left a really awful taste in my mouth and again, the only reason it was worth that kind of suffering is so I can recommend it here!

Athanassiel reminded me of The Goldfinch, which *might* qualify, but I truly did find all the characters quite likable despite their absolutely terrible life choices. Definitely miserable relationships, some blood/puke, and plenty of angst/drama. Also extremely long. I loved every minute of it.
posted by oxisos at 10:35 AM on June 4


Another Iain Banks, Walking On Glass had horrible people and I will never re-read it.

Octavia Butler's short "Bloodchild" is hardcore colonialist body horror that I do reread.

Delaney's Hogg I opened to two random pages and there was rape on both so I have not read it.
posted by away for regrooving at 1:47 PM on June 4


Any of the James Ellroy books in either of the two trilogies or the quartet. Just about every character is truly evil, or becomes so. Also LA comes off pretty bad as a historical place. And the author himself is pretty questionable.
posted by sir_patrick_o'veal at 7:33 AM on June 5


For colonialist body horror, it's hard to beat The Confessions of Frannie Langton. The book abounds with unlikeable or very ambiguous characters, although I absolutely love Frannie herself.
posted by BibiRose at 7:40 AM on June 5


In the speculative fiction corner, seconding The Sparrow and Perdido Street Station as gut-punchers. I'll note that neither of them are heavy on the unlikeable characters - it's more "bad things happen and refuse to improve."
posted by solarion at 7:52 PM on June 6


I can't believe I forgot this before but the work of Andrew Vachss is full of horrible people and incredibly disturbing stuff in general.
posted by RobinofFrocksley at 9:15 AM on June 7


I feel this way about most of Bret Easton Ellis. Glamorama has some particularly nasty bits.
posted by kookywon at 12:05 PM on June 7


Inspired by numerous references in Charlie Kaufman's Antkind (which I recommend here, at least the first half of the book...), I recently read Beckett's Molloy, and it's sequel-of-sorts, Malone Dies. Heartily recommend both of them.
posted by Theiform at 12:46 PM on June 7


Most (all?) of Thomas Bernhard's books
posted by davedave at 2:46 PM on June 9


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