Two Books About Lovable Unlikable People

Two Books About Lovable Unlikable People

Dear readers,

Some time ago I found a crown-of-thorns plant (Euphorbia milii) by the trash bins in our building. The plant had once been glorious but was abandoned in critical condition, with sap-oozing wounds and wizened limbs. I rehomed it and performed triage. The plant responded by perking and expanding at a “Little Shop of Horrors” rate, expressing tentacles that pricked all passersby, including me, with those murderous titular thorns. Euphorbia milii is a plant that can be loved but never liked.

Books are full of characters with the same quality. (As is life.) Below, some irresistible figures with whom you’d never, ever want to grab a beer.


This short novel is a study of several types of defiance: daughters defying mothers, employees defying employers, children defying logic. Lucy Josephine Potter arrives in Manhattan at age 19 from the West Indies to work as an au pair for a wealthy couple and their four kids. The beam of her intelligence is in the range of 200,000 lumens; in a matter of weeks she has taken the measure of the unhappily married couple, captivated their children and mapped out exactly how entangled in this family she wishes to become. (Not very.)

When the wife of the couple excitedly takes Lucy to see daffodils for the first time, the younger woman’s reaction is typically, indeed literally, cutting: Lucy’s impulse is to locate a scythe and chop them all down. “They looked like something to eat and something to wear at the same time; they looked beautiful; they looked simple, as if made to erase a complicated and unnecessary idea.”

Read if you like: Slamming doors during an argument, Patrick Süskind’s “The Pigeon,” walking out of movies, scorn
Available from: Macmillan, and likely your nearest library

Interviews, 1997 (in this translation)

This is a collection of interviews with friends and colleagues of the late filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, many of the conversations guided by his close collaborator — and the person who found him dead — Juliane Lorenz. I mention that last detail because it gives you an idea of how intimate these exchanges can be, sometimes to a point where I found myself physically glancing away from the page out of a mistaken “I shouldn’t be hearing this” politeness.

In part because of those warts, “Chaos” may be the best 360-degree portrait of a highly-lovable-but-unlikeable person ever committed to text. Fassbinder comes across as an obdurate workaholic, a tantrum-ing toddler, a demanding boss, an indefatigable pusher-of-buttons and an artist who noticed everything. One of the questions posed in the book is, “Did [Fassbinder] torment people so the movies would turn out the way he wanted it? Or did he make the movies so he could torment people?” (“If only one could tell in retrospect,” begins the reply.)

Read if you like: Films about people having nervous breakdowns, Manny Farber, sequins, the writing of David Ehrlich, who is easily among the finest film critics working today
Available from: Scour used bookstores (online or otherwise) or check eBay

  • Acknowledge that when Ann-Margret growled the song lyric “It’s a nice world to visit, but not to live in,” she wasn’t specifically referring to the mind of a cynical millennial astrologer — but how well the sentiment applies!

  • Say oink like a happy little piggy when faced with almost 300 pages of Frederick Seidel?

  • Rhapsodize over the monomaniacal Nelson Denoon in Norman Rush’s “Mating“ despite all common sense, just like the narrator of this 496-page novel (that I wish was thrice as long)?

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