I Read Fredrik Backman’s ‘A Man Called Ove’.
There is often a banter between my wife and I about the books that we each decide to read. Usually, I’m picking up these big stuffy, tomes, these 20–40 year old used copies of books that are supposed to be ‘classics’. Massive undertakings where I claim that “I like to see the ways that they tell stories and how they use language.” And I read about 15–25 books a year, often marveling at turns of phrase, and explicitly beautiful passages about the earth or the universe or love or death or one another. But I often couldn’t give you a brief synopsis of the story I just read, not if I was at gunpoint, not if I tried. Meanwhile, she reads dozens and dozens of books: big ones, little ones, thick ones, cute ones, pretty ones, daunting ones, scary ones… and can break down each and every plot point and character. So when I started reading this book (admittedly because I wanted to watch the Tom Hanks movie based on it), after a day or two with it, I was describing it as “a nice story.”
The language used is simple. A little frank. The way the story is told begins in a lighthearted way, almost written like a british comedy outright. We watch an older man struggle with modernity and at first, it’s in these little scenes littered with hyjinx. He’s mad at [Computers], and [Young People], and [Cars], etc. You can insert whatever little “new fangled” instance you would imagine old people throwing a fit about and it applies in the first few chapters of the book. Ove is grumpy, GET IT?! For me, this introductory phase was slow going. It was nice enough, though. I thought this was a good palate cleanse after going through a massive undertaking and an overly serious trilogy from Cormac McCarthy. I need something like this to help me consider a wider variety of books and styles. So I took it in stride.
The next phase of the book takes a bit of a darker underpinning. Ove is not only angry all the time, but he’s deeply sad. And day after day, he’s thinking of how he’s going to put an end to the sadness. Even between encounters with the eccentric and outgoing family who’s moved in on his block, we’re yanked down into the dregs with Ove’s perspectives, with his opinions and overall, his desire to see his woes come to an end. I would say this portion of the book tends to take on the biggest personality and sets the most consistent tone throughout the rest of the book. And I would still say the very same about the writing. The sentences have no flourish, the way the storytelling happens is very straightforward and very concise. I think it’s like allowing the scenes in the book take on lives of their own instead of taking the time to detail or illustrate them in great detail as I’m used to. I would say this is pretty effective! But it’s not at all the type of book that I gravitate towards. Even in film, in games, in television… I’ve always wanted things to remain as devoid of joy as possible. Keep the laughs out of it, please. And I know that sounds so grumpy and dejected, but it’s almost the opposite for me. In life, I am almost always taking the path of levity, constantly laughing and finding hilarious things to point out or talk with friends about. But when it comes to media, trying to shoehorn “LOL” and “Well, THAT happened!” moments into the stories is so distracting (though many will argue that it makes the stories more natural).
As the book moves into the next revelatory section of the book, we start to see the character of Ove and we begin to deeply connect with not only the man, but his history and his intentions. We see his effectiveness in situations. We learn more about the core of the man who Ove is and was, and how his vision for the world fits in with what the world has become (without his permission). We see how he behaves, and from where he acts. We see how it fits. It reminds me a lot of my own father, and how he was always a very grim, very tough, very overbearing person and now in his twilight years, either I am starting to understand his perspective or he is finally able to apply the lessons he’s learned over a long life and finally know where his place is and how his natural demeanor fits into it. He knows what to act on. Which impulses to shed. I think we can all find a great deal of parallels in this book for our darker selves, our more aggressive and aggravated selves and see in this story (as within our own) how to better apply the heat when necessary, when to curb the fury we feel inside, when to adjust our own scope to better fit those around us. When to stop assuming. To discard our prejudices in place of kindness.
Without getting too into the details of the hows and whys, in the end, this book had me in tears. A book that throughout, I continued to say, “it’s a nice story,” and “I like it, but it’s not written the way books I usually read are written,” got me moved to a place of deep emotional connection. So maybe it isn’t a wild epic, a profound work of literature. So maybe it isn’t twice its length, filled with subtext and undercurrents. This book did exactly what great stories are meant to. It gave me a reaction and an emotion that resounded deeply through my chest. Past its hyjinx and disposable silly moments, it still built a character that I could feel. That I could hear. That I could relate to. One that I could root for. One that I could miss.