BOOK REVIEW: ANXIOUS PEOPLE by Frederick Backman — April 2021

Reviewed by Jane Tompkins

The Swedish novelist Frederick Backman is the author of  A Man Called Ove, a NY Times #1 bestseller, and of several other popular works of fiction. His books have been translated into 25 languages and sold in 40 countries. When I read A Man Called Ove I found it heart-warming but lacking in nuance. His latest novel, Anxious People, is a cut above. For one thing, it made me laugh out loud. For another, it gave me several shocks of recognition, moments when the author articulates a feeling I’d experienced myself but had never been able to put into words. Backman knows how to describe the way life feels on the inside. It’s his special gift: making readers feel cared for and understood. That, and a sense of the ridiculous.

The situation is this: A bank robber, who has tried and failed to rob a bank, ends up in an apartment that’s being shown by a realtor—the door was open. The robber takes the people viewing the apartment hostage and, after finally letting them all go, manages to disappear. Two policemen, a father and son, are trying to figure out how the bank robber has escaped—there’s no way out of the apartment other than the front door. Backman offers us a core sample from the lives of each these characters, allowing us to see the reality inside as well as what appears on the surface. Another important plot element involves a suicide. Thirty years ago a man killed himself by jumping off a bridge that, as it happens, can be seen from the apartment—an event crucial not only to the plot but also to the novel’s world view.

There’s no doubt that Backman is a manipulative writer. At the opening of the book he bosses us around, telling us what to think, passing judgment on his characters, calling them “idiots,” like a teenager acting out, a technique both irritating and endearing. Another manifestation of this controlling tendency is the incredibly contrived nature of the plot. To make everything work out, he has to create giant coincidences, and this makes us aware that he’s pulling strings to get the effects he wants, though we feel the effects anyway. He’s like a magician who shows you how a trick works, then performs it, and it still seems like magic.

He can also be crude. Not bad-language crude, or too-much-sex-and-violence crude; rather, he sometimes seems to be shouting at us, or speaking in capital letters, as if his readers were deaf or needed to be hit over the head in order to get the point. There’s an adolescent zaniness in his style that, I guess, is supposed to make him seem approachable, just a regular guy, so that later he can get away with philosophical musings and incisive observations of human frailty, as well as sudden glimpses of human goodness and strength.

Backman uses comedy to offset the tragic features of a situation. Among the hostages there’s an old married couple who keep their marriage going by buying houses or apartments and renovating them; they’re able to suppress the difficulties of their relationship as long as they can visit a new Ikea together. And he uses plot to underscore the ironies of fate. The would-be robber, whose personal situation is desperate, tries to rob a bank that turns out to be cashless.

Each time I put the book down I found myself looking forward to getting back to it. Everything the author does is designed to keep you amused and guessing, curious and eager to turn the page. Most of all, because he’s alive to the enormity of human suffering, he wants us to be enlightened, comforted, and consoled by his story. It’s often clear that the author is drawing on his own experience, putting us into direct contact not just with his characters but with himself, making us feel that we’re all—author, characters, and readers—stumbling about and muddling through life together.

There’s more than a touch of farce here, as well as large helpings of mercy and compassion. Backman is out to demonstrate that we are all anxious people, deeply so, and by showing us this he hopes to remove the possibility that one day one of us will step off the bridge.~