On Frederik Backman’s Anxious People
The biggest fault I’m able to find with Frederik Backman’s Anxious People is its title, and it’s not a bad title. The people in it are anxious, after all, and it is in part their anxieties that drive them into conflict with each other. At the same time, though, it is a novel about people who are more than anxious, who are depressed and resentful and aging and in love and everything in between. It is about the various neuroses that bring them together. It is about the miracle that this improbable assembly turns out to be, and how it helps them begin to heal.
And a miracle this meeting is, with enough serendipities to fill another novel. And yet I buy it, which is a testament to the simultaneous confidence and care of Backman’s writing. Over the novel’s brisk three-hundred pages, the double-handful of characters at the novel’s heart (there are, in fact, exactly ten: Jim and Jack, the father-son policeman duo; Anna-Lena and Roger, a middle-aged couple; Zara, a depressed banker; Ro and Julia, a couple pregnant with their first child; Lennart, an actor reduced to acting as a rabbit; the realtor, a realtor; and the bank-robber, a woman whose life has suddenly fallen apart) are each rendered as round as they might have been in a novel in which they provided the only POV. Each is anchored with a different ballast of trauma, and the trauma of each emerges in different ways. Jack, who tried and failed to stop a man from committing suicide when he was a teenager, owns up to his grief from the start; Anna-Lena, who saw her career take off at the expense of her husband’s, shares the source of her pain only when pressed.
To reduce Anxious People to a story about a hostage situation is an act comparable to describing Breaking Bad as an instructional course on cooking meth. The amount of actual police work that makes up a novel whose primary conflict is an encounter with the Swedish police is practically nil. Anxious People is not about policing, but police. It’s not about banking, but the people on either side of the teller’s counter. It’s not about hostages, but about the psychology of what keeps us hostage. It’s not about anxiety, not really. It’s about the people it afflicts, and how these people dig themselves and each other out.
On Black Wings of Cthulhu: Volume One
I remember discovering Lovecraft my junior year of high school and being gobsmacked. Up to that point, I had existed as a devotee to King, and had grown accustomed to his brand of carnal horror. He was at his best when he stuck to the physical world, committing page after page to Wendy and Jack’s relationship in The Shining, or to Todd Bowden’s deepening obsession with his ex-Nazi neighbor in Apt Pupil. He was less effective when he abandoned these psychological landscapes for realms more spectral, as in the back half of his Dark Tower series. But these extra-dimensional planes didn’t need to land with an eldritch squelch, it turned out. These lands were Lovecraft’s stomping grounds, and in his best works (“The Shadow over Innsmouth” or At the Mountains of Madness, as I rank them), he bestowed upon this territory all the unsettling allure it was owed.
Now, almost a decade later, Lovecraft has lost much of his charm. Some of this decrease can be chalked up to his prose style, which lends itself well to description and thought, but struggles to convey action and conversation. More of it can be traced to Lovecraft’s well-documented misanthropy and racism, both of which permeate his works. For the most part, though, I’ve found myself increasingly disappointed with stories deemed “Lovecraftian,” and it’s because of the focus of these stories themselves. Lovecraft, after all, was never interested in the tentacles and lidless eyes that have come to embody his legacy. He was concerned with the unknowability that these forms stood as proxy for: what Mark Fisher, in The Weird and the Eerie, calls the “irruption” of that which is transcendentally exterior into our familiar world. The weird, by definition, is a negation of the mundane; to attempt to describe it is an inherently doomed act. To successfully carry on Lovecraft’s legacy, one must merely evoke the Other, hint at it, implicate, skirt. As Fisher also observes, “it is not horror but fascination… that is integral to Lovecraft’s rendition of the weird.” Lovecraft’s characters are repelled by it, yes. More powerfully, though, they are compelled, drawn deeper and/or outward, most often into madness. And the same can be said of us.
So it is that the majority of the stories in the S.T. Joshi-edited Black Wings of Cthulhu fail this litmus test, foregrounding horror in place of fascination. In his introduction to the anthology, Joshi cites the themes traditionally attributed to Lovecraft—the allure of the unknown, the cosmic insignificance of man—as his criteria for a story’s inclusion. And sometimes, like in Kiernan’s “Pickman’s Other Model” or Campbell’s “The Correspondence of Cameron Thaddeus Nash,” Lovecraft’s successors do him one better. More often, though, the authors here assembled try and fail to pull the same tricks that he did, but without the north star of fascination to guide them. The monsters of Pugmire’s “Inhabitants of Wraithwood” are comfortably monstrous; the alien entity of Burleson’s “The Dome” isn’t truly alien at all.
And yet: I enjoyed the collection. Still. I enjoyed it the same way I do when dipping my toes once more into King’s oeuvre, or thumbing open Tolkien again. There is a comfort to be found within Black Wings, even if there’s little that intrigues.