Don’t worry, no men called Ove will be harmed and no physical guts revealed in this post, but we will expose some of the techniques Frederik Backman used to craft his breakout novel, A Man Called Ove:
- he told a compelling “domestic” story without An Antagonist
- he made omniscient point of view feel as intimate as first person.
- he masterfully wove past and present.
Therese has asked the WU Breakout Novel Book Dissection group–a group that gets together 4 times a year on Facebook, and was founded following the first WU UnConference–to bring what we’re talking about to the wider WU community, to broaden the discussion. The group asks the same questions of the novels we tackle that Donald Maass asks us to apply to our own work in Writing the Breakout Novel—for those of us who’ve sat through even one of Don’s teaching sessions, it’s rather thrilling to apply the thumbscrews to a story that’s not our own.
But please note that we cannot dissect something without exposing the insides. Consider yourself warned:
SPOILERS AHEAD. PROCEED WITH CAUTION.
The novel is about Ove, a curmudgeonly widower trying to kill himself in as honorable and neat a fashion so his dead wife won’t be upset with him, but whose honor winds up dragging him into the lives of his neighbors and bringing him the connection and sense of purpose he’d been lacking. So when we came to the question, “Why do the antagonists feel justified and right in their perspective?” we had a tough time answering it.
Opposition? Yes. Antagonist? Not really.
Priya Gill got at the essence of our difficulty: “I didn’t see any real antagonist. Other than life itself and the perception of it.”
Given the volume of writing advice devoted to developing the antagonist, this felt odd, but a number of the books we’ve dissected have lacked one. In fact, Maass, himself, says that, “Sometimes the antagonist in a breakout novel is nothing more than life itself” (Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, p.68).
There are numerous scene antagonists, some of whom arc through sections of the book, but no one person thwarts Ove throughout. Yet most of us were drawn into his story and devoured the book.
There is plenty of conflict, and the forces of bureaucracy (“men in white shirts” who care for rules more than people) create escalating problems, but Ove is mostly fighting his grief, his anger at how the world is leaving men like him behind, his isolation—and about a thousand daily irritants. But given that the story is structured by his suicide attempts, Ove is in a life-and-death fight. John Kelley said, “I think it is clear the real struggles in this novel were internal, and Ove’s life provided all the fodder necessary to hold one’s interest.”
So how did this crank who takes a daily walk around his neighborhood, literally kicking posts and grumbling about the failings of the people around him, hold our interest? How did Backman do it? [Read more…]