10 Novels About the Drama of Working for the Family Business

From Electric Lit:

When we think of a family business, what springs to mind first is probably a straightforward, even heteronormative, structure: a commercial concern (hardware store; funeral home; shipping firm) passing from parent to child (usually meaning, under patriarchal and capitalist tradition, from father to son). And there are plenty of opportunities for conflict in this simple structure—after all, it depends on children behaving as employees; parents acting as managers; siblings jockeying for promotion. (How does one give one’s daughter a lukewarm performance review? Is it possible to rage-quit one’s family?)

But there is also an infinite world of messiness to tap in stories of family business, beyond this relatively straightforward drama of the play of power between (literal) corporate families. One way to describe my novel Glassworks is as a story of a family business that doesn’t know it’s a family business: each generation of the Novak family thinks they’re striking out on their own, choosing independence, rejecting their predecessors’ legacies; but again and again they end up drawn to the same patterns, the same foundational elements—in their occupations, in their relationships, and in the muddy spaces between the two.

For better and for worse, what we do for a living often has a controlling stake in our waking hours, our mental health, and our identity. Wherever this also gets mixed up with the drama of family—duty and rebellion, guilt and pride, love and resentment—there’s bound to be a fascinating story ahead.

. . . .

Trust by Hernan Diaz

Without revealing too much about a novel that relies on its unexpected turns, I can say that each of Trust’s four sections is concerned with families in business together—chief among those “businesses” being the purest distillation of American capitalism itself, in the robber-baron age of pince-nez and unregulated markets. Partners become collaborators become accomplices; parents and children betray one another and their own ideals for the sake of their next project. The tension at the heart of many of the novels on this list is that between duty and transaction on one side, and love (or rebellion) on the other—there’s one painfully beautiful version of this in Trust, with the character Ida’s father refusing to accept a gift from her without offering her a penny as “payment”—narrating as an old woman, Ida says, “I still have the penny that saved us.”  

. . . .

Geek Love  by Katherine Dunn

This cult classic takes the notion of a “family business” to grotesque extremes, with carnival barkers Aloysius and Crystal Lil Binewski experimenting with radioisotopes, arsenic, and toxic potions of all descriptions to ensure their children can double as their sideshow exhibits. Sibling rivalry thrives, to say the least, among the Binewski clan (Arturo the Aquaboy; Iphy and Elly the Siamese twins; Olympia, our hunchback narrator; and telekinetic Chick). The small-town America carnival circuit bears witness to their Machiavellian power struggles and the sometimes equally disturbing displays of love that tumble headlong into obsession, with the whole plot literally powered by the ashes of the carnival’s founder and Binewski patriarch—Grandpa’s urn is bolted to the hood of the midway’s generator truck. 

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

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