Fredrik Backman’s latest novel, Anxious People, published in Sept. 2020, is well-timed, written for people who feel anxious in these anxiety-inducing times, by an author who, in the Author’s Thanks at the back, writes that he has had panic attacks, so has been anxious himself.
What’s with the anxiety?
Anxiety, according to the APA, it is an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure. People with anxiety usually have recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns, and may avoid certain situations out of worry. They may also have physical symptoms such as sweating, trembling, dizziness or a rapid heartbeat, in other words, panic attacks.
This being the case, then all of humanity must suffer from anxiety at some point in their lives, if not all the time. “Anxiety Disorder” though, is a problem which comes on a scale of six types, from less severe to cripplingly bad, and people with that condition have excessive, ongoing anxiety and worry that are difficult to control and interfere with their day-to-day activities. In other words, you’re so anxious you cannot function.
It is interesting that the original Swedish title is “people with angst”. The word “angst” is more general than anxiety, referring also to fear and to apprehension – in other words, anxiety about or fear of specific upcoming events, or a sense of insecurity or lack of confidence.
This is what the characters in the novel have: angst, anxiety and Anxiety Disorder. They are all sorts – a cop, his father (also a cop), a bank clerk, an old lady, a wealthy businesswoman, someone who ends up taking a group of people hostage, and so on. Backman’s delivers a detailed account of a bank heist which turns into a hostage situation. It is detailed because he describes the investigation by the pair of policemen, the only police officers in the small town where it happens.
Between the often amusing descriptions of unsuccessful interviews with obstinately uncooperative witnesses (perhaps these kinds of contrarian, sarcastic exchanges are typically Swedish?), Backman intersperses flashbacks to the events in the lives of the people involved, which caused their anxieties and which connect them. It is a mystery within a mystery. In the end, it is all satisfactorily resolved, perhaps too optimistically but nevertheless, it gets sorted.
Identities of the characters
But this is a novel for today’s reader, all present and correct in terms of current issues like gender politics: For instance, Backman plays games with pronouns and first names, leaving you assuming something about a character, and only revealing the gender of a person much later in the novel. While people read, they build pictures in their minds and visualize characters. Of course, these are based on their prior knowledge and assumptions. But it’s a bit of a jolt to suddenly realize you’ve had the wrong picture in your head all along.
For instance, the robber/hostage taker: From the descriptions, I assumed this was a man, and this person’s incompetence and complete lack of success seemed funny in a man. It turns out it is a woman. In a woman, being a cowering, dithering person is not so funny, because it could be clichéd. (Or have I got this argument backwards?) In the novel, Backman, almost until the end, just refers to “the bank robber”, which is an odd choice of words by Backman and his translator, Neil Smith, since it is such an old-fashioned term. “Bank-robber”: it conjures up images of someone in a mask and a cowboy outfit, with a horse waiting outside, in a small town somewhere in the Old West of the US, a couple of centuries ago.
This plot twist (to be precise, an “anagnorisis”, the discovery or recognition of the true identity or nature of a character) does add suspense to the narrative. But it does not only apply to the character of the bank robber, but to the other main characters, or protagonists, as well, making this very much an “ensemble cast”. I can see the novel being turned into a screenplay, without much transformation required.
One way or another, the characters turn out to be not quite what you expected. And, underneath the wackiness, the silly mistakes, the awkwardness, the confusion and the ostensibly serious situations (at least for the first half of the book it looks like there could have been a death or a murder, with what looks like blood), there are sadness, miserable lives, and desperate acts. In other words, anxiety all ’round.
So what’s the point?
What is the point of writing such a novel? Readers will not be able to help feeling empathy for the characters – we have all been there (well, in general – not many people rob banks). So what? The point is that the last chapter ends, as the novel begins, with some words of consolation for all the worried, bumbling humans who are just trying their best to cope:
Reading it was like being in an echo chamber, noting, with a sense of recognition, that readers are not alone in their bafflement about everyday problems, and their sense of disconnection from society. Today, more than ever, people are swamped by their circumstances. No surprises there.
“You. For reading this. Thank you for your time.”
(Fredrik Backman in Anxious People, p. 341)
Photo by Kat Jayne on Pexels.com
To draw a line under this conclusion – that the new normal is not quite normal – the last chapter in the book is followed by a page full of local (Canadian) helpline numbers, with the title, If You Need Someone. I presume each country edition has a different list.
However, most people who are at such a level of depression and anxiety that they really want and need help, would probably be unable to actually pick up their phone and dial a number and spill their guts to a perfect stranger. Like advertisements for English literacy lessons written in English, the medium ruins the message. There are a couple of websites listed as well. Who knows, perhaps this could save a life. At the very least, the novel could provide some perspective.
Look, a work of high art it isn’t. One might say a few of the characters are a tad commonplace. Some details of the plot, such as how the gun went off in the apartment, are not very convincing. Occasionally, I thought, whoops, plothole! Let’s just say, Backman is no Jo Nesbø.
BUT. Big but. Not every novel needs to be the pinnacle of perfection in its genre in order to have meaning and value. Sometimes, just being able to put into words the intangible, complicated feelings and motivations that drive people is an achievement in itself. To define how people fit into the world these days, and how they cope. And to just put the message out there that we’re all idiots in a way, and that’s OK.
For that, thank you kindly, Mr. Backman.
About Fredrik Backman
He is only 39 years old, and has already written seven successful novels, which have been published in more than forty countries, and one work of non-fiction. Talk about an over-achiever. Handsome fellow. Married, apparently happily, and has two children. Prior to Anxious People, he published Us Against You, and earlier, A Man Called Ove (which was filmed), and Britt-Marie Was Here. I went through a phase of not liking his writing, but now I do and I guess I just got used to his style. If you carefully read the Author’s Thanks at the back of the novel, it will reveal much more about him than the three-line bio on the cover. But I guess a man who has panic attacks needs some privacy.
His bio on Instagram: “Skriver grejer. Nu senast “Folk med ångest”. Gillar glass. /// Loud person and weak swimmer. Writes things. Also eats things.”