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?
We were discussing emotional layers, and whether the author revealed emotion in ways other than naming them or expected responses (answer was a resounding yes) when Jocosa Wade talked about how Backman created “an omniscient story that read as if it was first person. Oh, so personal.”
In trying to unpack how Backman managed this, Jan O’Hara made this observation:
I think it was a core strength of the writer’s voice…Omniscient tends to be more scientific and detached, but if the narrator views the characters with genuine affection, I think that perspective creeps in sideways. There’s a generosity created. I suspect a cynical person, telling the same story in omniscient, would have Ove come across as sullen and petty rather than honor-bound and misguided. So a cool POV altered by a warm human being at the other end of the pen.
Given that Backman was writing about an emotionally dry, frequently wordless, angry and anti-social man, how did his use of omniscient read so warm?
He wrote great descriptions without regard to what Ove might observe. Here’s how we met Ove: “He’s the kind of man who points at people he doesn’t like the look of, as if they were burglars and his forefinger a policeman’s torch.” Jan observed: “the image is on theme in that policemen are the arbiters of what is right and wrong, like Ove. Succinct, visceral, and brilliant.”
He brought out Ove’s tenderness: Ove caressed his wife’s tombstone as if he were stroking her cheek. When his wife became paralyzed, he carried her up and down the stairs in their house, loving how her nose burrowed into his collarbone. We also got the benefit of Ove’s wife’s thoughts about him:
She nagged him for years about moving into the empty downstairs guest room, but Ove refused. After a decade or so she realized that this was his way of showing her that he had no intention of giving up. That God and the universe and all the other things would not be allowed to win. That the swine could go to hell. So she stopped nagging (p.259).
He showed us how Ove expressed emotions. Backman repeatedly writes: “People always said Ove saw the world in black and white. But she [his wife] was color. All the color he had” (p.45). When his 3-year-old neighbor girl gives him a picture she drew of him and her family, he finds that “Everything else on the paper is drawn in black, but the figure in the middle is a veritable explosion of color. A riot of yellow and red and blue and green and orange and purple” (p.212). After the mother tells him that the girl always draws him in color, “It takes several seconds before Ove collects himself” (p.212). Later, we see the drawing proudly displayed on his fridge. Near the end, the 7-year-old girl next door whispers, Granddad, to him, and we get this restrained and poignant description:
Ove stands quietly in the hall, poking his house keys against the calluses on one of his palms … Ove stays in the hall with his jacket on and stares emptily at the floor for what must be almost ten minutes (p.321).
Omniscient point of view also gave Backman the ability to move around in time without regard to whether Ove was actively remembering anything about the past, which brings us to another strength of this breakout novel.
Masterful Use of Backstory
Alisha Rohde summed up our conclusions well: “Backman is very good at weaving in the backstory all over the place as we follow Ove’s thinking and his getting through each day (or trying to end his days).”
One of the questions we ask is, “Does the novel contain a scene of backstory in the first 50 pages? If so, does it belong there? How does it increase or decrease tension?”
A Man Called Ove starts with four pages in the present, goes back three weeks, and by page 36 we are into the distant past. The backstory starts right after we’ve discovered that this persnickety curmudgeon who has been talking tenderly to his dead wife still checks the radiators every night to make sure she hasn’t turned up the heat—six months after her death. So we are ready to mine his past to learn how he got to this point.
Given that Backman describes Ove as having “never been the sort of man who went around remembering things unless there was a need for it” (p.37), it helps that we don’t have to rely on him for the full story. We can experience Ove, not as a mere malcontent with anger issues, but as a man who feels out of his time and who’s been in a life-long battle against uncaring bureaucracies that have caused him and his loved ones serious pain.
Our Top Takeaways
A Man Called Ove is an excellent book to read:
- if you are writing a “smaller” or more domestic story, and want an example of how to do that and still make the stakes feel high, and the story feel big;
- if you are curious about omniscient point of view done in a way that feels as intimate as first person;
- if you want to explore backstory done well.
A number of Dissectors also found themselves profoundly encouraged in their own writing. Jan O’Hara said:
I feel more empowered and ambitious with regards to my own writing. It’s reassuring to know that a story about a superficially normal man in a superficially normal neighborhood, written in a dry tone of voice, can tackle big themes, evoke big emotions, and be commercially embraced.
Let’s keep the dissection going! Have you read A Man Called Ove? Do you agree or disagree with our conclusions? Do you want to say something about the novel that hasn’t been said here? What are other ways authors can bring us deeper into the world of an emotionally closed-off protagonist? Are there other books you recommend that do no-antagonist, warm omniscient, or backstory well?
We’re dissecting Donna Tart’s The Goldfinch in April—join us on Facebook.