Exploring the Human Condition with Fredrik Backman in ‘Anxious People’

Fredrik Backman in Anxious People

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

“This story is about a lot of things, but mostly about idiots.”

What happens when an unsuccessful bank robber unsuccessfully runs away from the bank and accidentally enters an apartment viewing? A wonky hostage situation, of course.

From the author of the splashing hit A Man Called Ove, Fredrik Backman, comes the charming chronicle of a group stuck inadvertently in a flat with their hijacker in Anxious People. Eight individuals, who seem to be as different from each other as possible, have come together on the most uneventful day of the year – the day before New Year’s Eve. Little did they know that the day would coalesce their lives into a solid rolling ball of confused chaos, dragging them down the slope unhurriedly.

 In a town in Sweden, a robber in a ski mask interrupts an apartment viewing, looking as equally surprised as the rest of them to have ended up there. After a failed bank burglary, necessitated by a parent unable to pay the bills, the robber has no one to turn to except for the hostages. As tension slowly builds in the room, conversations take an unexpected turn, getting deeper and more personal with every passing minute. Time ticks by, and the restless crowd begin to unravel each other’s emotions, life stories, and the real reason why they were all present in that very situation.

Parallelly, the story flits back and forth into post-event interrogations of the hostages [now witnesses] with the police. A father-and-son duo acting as the investigating policemen have their work cut out for them. The first and foremost puzzle to solve is where the robber disappeared from within a closely monitored and secure apartment. As they speak with the witnesses one by one, the puzzle gets increasingly intriguing, especially because each witness seems ready to delve into their own versions and theories.

First, there is the estate agent – armed with a lack of attention and the surety that the name of her agency is too clever not to be mentioned over and over again. [HOW’S TRICKS? Get it?]. She alternates between melancholy, sympathy, and loud pride. She comes across as someone who is apparently unfazed about the whole situation or is dealing with it in her own strange way. She embodies the usage of misdirected communication. While the police try to get information out of her, she completely disregards their concerns and begins trying to promote her own business. The younger policeman’s stress responds with exacerbation by her distracted, flyaway sentences and what seems to be an avoidance philosophy of dealing with a potentially traumatic event.

Exploring the Human Condition with Fredrik Backman in Anxious People

Then comes Zara – a seemingly self-assured, opinionated banker whose presence is shrouded in untold mystery [and perhaps, misery]; she is the kind of person who hides her insecurities by talking down to other people and making them feel worse than she perpetually does. Nothing and everything about her seems to make sense. For starters – Why would a high-profile banker be part of a middle-class apartment showing? Why does she insist on taking charge at one time and detaching herself completely at another? Nobody is able to guess what her motive for being there is, and the theme continues until the end. After the encounter, even though her walls may not have broken down completely, a crack in the brick lets some light inside. Zara seems to take pride, and sometimes shelter, in the unconventional enigma she brings onto her person.

Anna-Lena and Roger come next – an older couple obsessed with all things IKEA and holding onto them as the singular remaining aspect of their personality as partners. Together they live in their sweet, oblivious bubble, with Anna-Lena doing her best to hold it up. They come to the interrogation with the spilt damages of laundry dirtied from a bubble burst, with an uninvited guest threatening to break down everything they’ve built. Roger uncannily resembles Zara in terms of being defensive at all times. He has spent years thinking that he’s the one who has had to keep his wife within the walls at all times, but the unfolding series of events reveals otherwise. A strong case of a wilful partnership built over the years, they sustain the importance of love holding one up. Their relationship impresses upon the reader that it isn’t always fifty-fifty; it doesn’t always have to be.

Julia and Ro come next – a young, madly in love, and topsy-turvy couple, expecting their first baby. While the heavily pregnant Julia is the practical one in this relationship, Ro is impulsive and responsible for ensuring that she is comfortable all the time. Even though everything she does seems absolutely wrong, Julia appreciates Ro for trying his best. They are probably the only two who got the most out of this visit in terms of learning from wiser counterparts who have been through much more than they have in life. Bickering their way through their love, they sail through all the emotions that we all go through when we’re young and inexperienced, including questioning an authority, standing up for the ones you love, questioning yourself, and learning how to stand up for yourself. It is a rollercoaster ride which is the rite of passage to full adulthood.

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Finally, we come to Estelle, the oldest of the lot. Estelle helps create a narrative so complexly nostalgic that it’s hard not to feel heart-wrenched at the conclusion. In a group of disgruntled and disheartened wives, she is the one to lift everyone’s spirits up with decades-old wisdom, the aunt who likes to be up-to-date with the times despite being ages apart from the “young ones.” Estelle is also the type of person who can bind a group by simply caring about other people, regardless of what they mean to her. As someone who has seen it all, she is the mellow amalgamation of compassion and mischief that an enriched life experience offers. Her character is staunchly fixed in the past, while her little oddities try to adjust themselves in today’s world.

Then there’s the lawful twosome. It’s never easy to mix the personal and the professional, so there’s no way out when you have your father or son in the same vocation and at the exact location as you. When such a situation occurs, usually, the things that bind you together can also threaten to tear you apart. Jim (the father) and Jack (the son) work together on the case and try their best not to let their relationship show (or, at least, Jack does). In Jack’s attempt to be professional while keeping his real motive discreet, Jim does his best to protect his son as wordlessly as possible. Both may have to come to terms with the affection they feel for the other or lose their sanity while remaining enclosed in the tiny office.

The human condition (as described in the book and summarised above) is at best understood as the topical state that humans exist in, the trials and tribulations that come with human existence, and the maneuvering they need to survive. It is a beautiful state; it is a pitiful state. At times, it is also a delirious and cantankerous state. It cannot be described in language. It cannot be questioned. It cannot be controlled. It can only be lived and experienced. But as with all things that can tangibly take place, it is our reaction to it that we can control, and this choice makes or breaks how we live. Author and YouTuber John Green has said, “Hope is the correct response to the human condition.” This book is the hopeful response you didn’t know you were looking for!

Backman manages to rifle through each individual storyline with the grace of an inspired ballet dancer. Heartbreak, loneliness, and regret are all delved into, as are love, compassion, and laughter. You will find yourself chuckling at something Ro does that reminds you of your loved one and bawling your eyes out at the plight of the sad ones. He successfully creates an evocative tale that ties up smaller stories of each character. Emotions are woven into and overlap through every individual’s story, giving each character enough time to be ruminated upon. The book so smoothly navigates the complexities involved that the only theme that stands out is a variegated portrayal of the human condition. I would definitely recommend reading Backman’s Anxious People. It is for those who like a book with deeply flawed, deeply human characters.

Felix Herngren adapted Anxious People in a television series for Netflix

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