By Ekta R. Garg, Editor
November 12, 2020
Anxious People by Fredrik Backman
Release date: September 8, 2020
Genre: Mainstream fiction
I’ll admit, when I read Fredrik Backman’s first book, A Man Called Ove, years ago, it took me several pages to settle into his writing style. I’ve often used the word “whimsical” in describing his work, because I think his books embody the purity of whimsy. In the early pages, they seem to flit from one idea to another, from one subplot to the subsequent one. Like a bee zipping from one flower to the next, it’s fascinating to watch but after a little while you’ll be tempted to wonder, “What’s the point?” Or you might even think, “This seems like it’s accomplishing absolutely nothing.”
Everyone knows, though, how crucial bees are to our ecosystem.
I point this out only because as an editor, I’m fascinated by the utter challenge it must be for Backman’s team to work on his novels. His style hasn’t changed much at all through the years, and in this case it’s a good thing. It’s as much a part of his author brand and his author self as anything else. Frankly, I don’t want it to change. Even more frankly, I’m a little jealous of that team for getting to read his genius works first.
On the surface, though, any editor might consider tackling his work a herculean task. This is how the first chapter of Anxious People opens:
“A bank robbery. A hostage drama. A stairwell full of police officers on their way to storm an apartment. It was easy to get to this point, much easier than you might think. All it took was one single really bad idea.
This story is about a lot of things, but mostly about idiots. So it needs saying from the outset that it’s always very easy to declare that other people are idiots, but only if you forget how idiotically difficult being human is.”
Anyone reading this will probably sit up and be ready for what comes next. Editors love openings lines like those in the first paragraph, because they already sound like the author has settled in to share an amazing story with us. The logical step, of course, would be for a writer to continue with what led to these things in the first place.
But, as always, Backman doesn’t give everything away that easily. He lets loose a hundred spools of thread, and each of them is a vibrant color. Those of us who love his work know that by the end all of the threads will form a brilliant tapestry.
Anyone new to his work will be, at the very least, intrigued. The first chapter is only three pages long. The second isn’t even a full page, and it starts like this:
“Ten years ago a man was standing on a bridge. This story isn’t about that man, so you don’t really need to think about him right now. Well, obviously you can’t help thinking about him, it’s like saying “Don’t think about cookies,” and now you’re thinking about cookies.
Don’t think about cookies!”
The first chapter references a bank robbery. The second one is talking about a man on a bridge and…cookies? What gives?
Despite the surface-level flippancy, Backman’s work is anything but. He’s setting the tone, letting readers know it’s okay to giggle, even if it’s in discomfort, at what he’s sharing. Because if a person isn’t crying, they’re laughing, and isn’t laughter supposed to be good medicine? Isn’t it supposed to ease the pressure and burden of life’s ailments, even if it can’t solve them?
Here’s how the third chapter begins:
“It’s the day before New Year’s Eve in a not particularly large town. A police officer and a real estate agent are sitting in an interview room in the police station. The policeman looks barely twenty but is probably older, and the real estate agent looks more than forty but is probably younger.”
At this point, the story could either become serious or comical. During his book tour for Anxious People, Backman said that when he started work on this novel he was clear from the outset that he wanted to write a comedy. The book that came out before this one, Us Against You, took a lot out of him (as it might have anyone; it should have enlisted Kleenex as a national sponsor.) For a change of pace, and for his own mental wellbeing, Backman decided to write something funny.
But how do you make a bank robbery funny, an editor might ask. Simple: make sure the robber fails. Not only that, make sure the robber fails for a funny reason—the thief hadn’t taken into account that all of the banks in Sweden are now cashless. Any normal person in this situation, at realizing the crime they want to commit is not working, will panic. So does the bank robber.
How can you continue the humor, an editor might want to know. Easy: the bank robber commits a completely unrelated, unplanned crime. Here, the robber takes a whole group of people hostage.
And how does the humor carry through to the end, an editor might inquire. No problem: By telling everyone the ending—or the most important part, anyway—upfront. The book starts after the hostage drama is over. All of the hostages are safe. What makes this funny, what carries that quality of being funny throughout the rest of the book, is that none of the hostages are answering the police’s questions. At least, not in the way the police want.
We find out, through the course of the novel, why the hostages don’t tell the cops what really happened while they were under the thief’s capture. The cops actually figure it out on their own, and everyone is the better for it.
In the last chapter of the book, Chapter 74, the unnamed narrator says:
“The truth? The truth about all this? The truth is that this was a story about many different things, but most of all about idiots. Because we’re doing the best we can, we really are. …[W]hen you get home this evening, when this day is over and the night takes us, allow yourself a deep breath. Because we made it through this day as well.”
This is something any editor can get on board with: complete symmetry. Backman started his novel with the idea that the story was about idiots and ends it that way. The opening lines might make a person scoff in superiority. By the end, the same reader will nod in empathy. S/he will agree and have no problem admitting that any person on any given day can be an idiot like these characters.
The reader will understand why the robber tried to rob a bank and why the hostages refused to give the thief up. Why the police did what they did. And why it’s such a relief to agree with it all. Because we all really are trying to do the best that we can.
Backman’s theme is stated in his title, and it carries through with clarity and purpose from the first page to the last. Every single book he’s written is like that, and it’s why, I’m sure, his editors feel fortunate to work with him. I know I would.