First, a story: I wake up on a freezing cold day before the sun rises, ready to walk my puppy and perform myriad tasks before work. As I'm getting ready, my puppy stands up and pees all over the bed. I pull off all of the sheets and jam them into my washer as they drip across the floor. While I'm doing this, my dog pees on the floor. While I'm cleaning up his pee, my dog pees on the floor. While I'm cleaning up his pee, my dog pees on the floor. While I'm cleaning up his pee, my dog poops on the floor. Out of the back window, I can see a breathtaking sunrise and mutter at missing it as I clean and clean. When we finally get back from our walk, feeling weary at the thought of the still full day of work and tasks, I sit down with my coffee and begin a book that, like many Mainers, I've had on my holds list for a while: Fredrik Backman's Anxious People. On the first page, he writes:
".... there's such an unbelievable amount that we're all supposed to be able to cope with these days. You're supposed to have a job, and somewhere to live, and a family, and you're supposed to pay taxes and have clean underwear and remember the password to your damn Wi-FI. Some of us never manage to get the chaos under control, so our lives simply carry on, the world spinning through space at two million miles an hour while we bounce about on its surface like so many lost socks."
And that, right there, is why Backman has become such a phenomenon in popular literature. Because on the morning you most feel like a lost sock, he hands you the phrase with humor, and he crafts a story that both makes you laugh and reminds that you that, corny or not, you're not alone. We're all trying to remember our passwords, potty train our toddlers and housetrain our puppies, carry our losses into each new day and try to be functioning (dare we hope successful?) individuals.
Anxious People, the latest novel from the author of the wildly popular A Man Called Ove, is perhaps the book for 2020, when even the best and most in-control of us are feeling anxious, helpless, and rather lost at sea. It's the story of a bank robbery gone wrong turned into a hostage crisis gone wonky. When the would-be robber flees the police and ends up at an apartment viewing, the prospective tenants find themselves held hostage, confronting various insecurities and self-truths, and, well, having an impromptu pizza party. After the hostages are released, the bank robber disappears, and father-son police duo Jack and Jim have to fumble their way through exactly what happened. The narrative continuously leaps back to a man who jumped from a bridge ten years earlier and set into motion a variety of reverberations and connections that will surface throughout the novel.
The cast of characters feels a bit like a diversity checklist: married heterosexual couple, married lesbian couple, single rich woman, elderly woman, and so on. But for every character and plot point that feels like a trope, Backman gives us something like the bank robber's beloved children, who are known throughout as the monkey and the frog. The novel is full of little twists as Jack and Jim sort out the truth of what happened, and it is one of these small unexpected points that asks us to check our perceptions in a rather big and clever way. The story arc jumps back and forth and is peppered with police interviews that may make you question whether anyone would really talk to a cop in such a way, but at the end of the story, it's almost impossible to get out of the reading chair without just finding Backman so darn likable. And maybe thinking it's okay to be a little (or a lot) anxious, too.
Backman can veer between predictable and unlikely or fantastic, tending to flout the teacherly admonition to show, not tell and instead a sincere directness about what he's trying to say. But there's a reason Anxious People was released in September and there are still nearly 200 Minerva library patrons waiting for this high demand title, why it's still on the New York Times bestseller list and getting rave reviews. There's a feeling when you're reading a Backman novel that he wrote it as an act of kindness, that he wants to help you be a bumbling fool by acknowledging that he's a bumbling fool, that we're all bumbling fools and a little bit crazy and annoying, and that maybe there's something rather okay in that. He's in it with us. Writing a sweet and funny book seems to be, for this bestselling Swedish author, a bit of an act of love. For his readers, and for the friend he himself once lost to suicide.
If you want to see what the buzz is all about, click here to hop on the holds list and request Anxious People.