Saturday, August 5, 2023

Review: A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

This book does a couple things well, but has a lot of infuriating ticks and bad philosophies. Let's start with the things I hated, and end on a pleasant note. And let’s do internet-friendly numbered lists, because why not: 4 Things I Hated and 3 Things I Loved about A Man Called Ove:

  1. The book is grossly fatphobic. The overweight character Jimmy cannot complete an action without Ove remarking on how his “blubber” moves or how his weight causes his Saab to sway. It can’t be chalked up to the worldview of the narrator, Ove (unless Ove hallucinates): the character is constantly asking for something to eat.
  2. The book strictly observes gender roles. The amount of emotional labour the women of this book contribute is unreal. While the book explores positive masculinity versus toxic masculinity, it is the women — neighbour Parveneh and wife Sonja — who patiently coax Ove out of his rut, help him find purpose in life, and rescue him from suicide. Over the book, Ove comes to accept that men who don’t know what to do with joists are still valid people, but he still doesn’t take on basic “social glue” tasks like remembering people’s names.
  3. The book distrusts institutions, who never do anything good. The narrative gives good reason for Ove to be skeptical of some social workers, who suggested he might want to divorce his wife and/or put her in a home after she is left paraplegic. But his crusade against “men in white shirts” is always righteous, or at worst, tedious but principled. Although the overall message of the book is the importance of community, the bounds of community are limited to one’s neighbourhood. There’s not a single instance of the positive benefits of state coordination of tasks — although presumably this is how the train system on which Ove fell in love with his wife came into being. The ideal world appears to be one where there is no government intervention save for the administration of driver’s licenses (the one sole positively portrayed government function), and groups of people manage their needs via homeowner associations (even if HOAs are plagued by petty squabbles over snow blowers and heating systems).
  4. The humour is unfunny. This arises naturally from the three points above: the fat jokes, the jokes about women having too many coats, the jokes about how you can’t do anything these days without men in white shirts telling you no, they’re tiresome and unending. There’s a lot of angry violence played for humour — which is odd in a book that seeks to understand toxic aspects of masculinity.

The book is a long 337 pages, and I think if all the above (plus a few scenes played just for jokes) was cut out, it could have been a really tight 150-page novela. It writes some things skillfully:

  1. Ove’s backstory is revealed fantastically. We hear about his tasks for the day, which include installing a hook in the ceiling. Throughout the day, he thinks about what he should tell his wife. He does things like check the radiators to make sure his wife hasn’t sneakily increased the temperature. Perhaps a quarter through the book, not until after we get to know Ove and his relationship with his wife, do we learn that his wife has been dead for six months, and he is installing a hook to hang himself. Similarly, asides and observations, like tire marks on the living room floor, presage the discovery that his wife used a wheelchair. These mysteries kept me wanting to read more.
  2. Ove is an odd sort, but so is everyone else. Ove has many flaws. A worse comedy could leave it at that, have its characters act as straight men to Ove’s grumpy particularity while Ove softens up. However, we learn that Ove isn’t so strange at all: his quirks are shared by others. Parveneh in particular matches him in force of will, but other neighbours mirror him in how they hide their pain, or their joy in new machines (cars for him, an iPad for Parveneh’s daughter), or their fastidious expertise in tools (cables for Jimmy, and less electric tools for Ove). Nobody is a normie.
  3. The portrayal of love and loss is excellent. Ove is curmudgeonly, but not unloveable. His wife is wonderful — it was a pleasure to discover such a vibrant woman through Ove’s adoring eyes. Through this seemingly odd pair, we see how wonderful it is to be understood, appreciated, loved by someone else. We learn how seamlessly the two people fit together, and it’s heartbreaking to then see Ove try to struggle through on his own after her death. These passages are sincere and very emotional.

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