Summer Stack: A Man Called Ove

Ove is the sort of man who checks the status of all things by giving them a good kick.

Yesterday, I was catching up with one of my professors, and he asked me what I thought of Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove. I responded: “I’d forgotten how nice it is to read a book that isn’t challenging.” At the time of that assessment of the novel, I was still about 75 pages from the end. Having finished the book last night, I can safely say that I stand by my answer. Ove was an easy read, and a welcome break from the mental aerobics I’ve done this past semester reading Woolf, Lawrence, performance theory, narrative theory…which is not to say that Backman’s book is better or worse than any of that. It was different. And difference can be good (refreshing, even) when it arrives at the most opportune moment.

My cousin, from whom I borrowed Ove, told me that the ending would make me cry. I was skeptical. I vacillate between not giving even half a shit about anything or anyone one day, and caring entirely too much about everything and everyone the next. The possibility of me crying at the end of the book would really depend on what kind of day I was having when I finished it. But I cried, y’all. I cried like a baby. A hungry, angry baby.

I thought the structure of Backman’s novel was quite effective, as was his economical use of dialogue. There wasn’t a lot of speech in quotes, but when it happened, it did a damn good job, particularly during the scenes in which Ove communicates with Sonja, his wife, before we learn that she passed away. When it’s revealed that all of the one-sided conversations Ove has with Sonja are actually him speaking aloud, alone in front of her grave, it works. (I cried there, too. And again when he rescues a “Cat Annoyance” and brings it to Sonja’s grave with him; he gets emotional and the Cat Annoyance pushes its face into Ove’s knee – goodness gracious. I was WEAK.)

Backman provides for the reader little bits of information that are expanded upon in the repetition of the same kinds of scenes. We seem to learn about Ove at the same slow pace as his new neighbor, Parvaneh, does – although we get quite a bit more than she does, and she mainly figures him out on her own. Quite perceptive, that one. That being said, I had a hard time staying invested in Ove’s story. His past was easy for me to attach to and feel for – he was orphaned and became perhaps too self-reliant, then he fell into such a beautiful love with a phenomenal woman whose death brought Ove’s life to a complete halt. But Ove’s present action was where I ran into trouble.

An old fiction-writing style guide I have tells me that you never give a character a serious “hang-up” without giving him a chance to get over it. Ove in the present has a lot of serious hang-ups, and much of his getting-over-it does not happen until the last hundred pages or so. (Here I must note that the novel stands at 337 pages.) And even then, I’m not sure I buy into his growth. It happens so slowly until those final chapters, and then it rushes together in an instant. For me, it didn’t feel like he actually changed and opened himself up to Parvaneh’s family and other people in the community (Jimmy, etc.). It seemed more like he let them all run roughshod into his life because he eventually figured he couldn’t stop them from doing so. Ove couldn’t make them go away, so he allowed them to infiltrate his carefully-ordered world. It benefitted them, sure, but I’m doubtful that it benefitted Ove enough to fully overcome his “hang-up.”

Growth. That’s what it was all about. Ove believed that men were what they did, not what they said. This echoes a Terry Goodkind quote I adore: “Mind what people do, not what they say, for deeds will often betray a lie.” Therein lies the explanation of why Ove is so disdainful of just about everyone and everything in the ‘modern’ world – it’s full of people saying things, but not so full of people doing things and fighting for things. So when I finished the novel and thought about what Ove did, and the things for which he fought, his growth is packed into those final chapters before he dies.

The ending, with all its beautiful prose and effective organization, felt almost too neatly tied up. Ove grew because, for the novel to end satisfactorily, he had to, at least a little. But, I suppose, a little is better than nothing at all.

It was nice to read something purely for pleasure. I mean, I find all my reading to be pleasurable, but by “reading for pleasure” I mean that I read something that was not selected for me. I wasn’t assigned this, nor did I have to write anything about this. (I’m doing these posts to synthesize my thoughts and keep my brain working over the summer.) I enjoyed Ove very much, despite my uncertainties expressed here. I was moved by it emotionally, as a reader, and also stylistically as a creative writer.

Sometimes you come into a book thinking, “Ah, yes, a break from learning,” and it ends up teaching you something anyway. Funny how that happens.

Next up on the Summer Stack is Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. Expect to see something for that around Wednesday next.


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