I haven’t read a book in almost two months. Usually by this point in the year, I have surpassed my reading goal by 10–20 books. This year, I will be ending the year 30 books behind my annual goal. It’s fine. I’m fine. Along with reading, I have found it difficult to concentrate on scripted television, movies, podcasts, and even music with lyrics. My yearly Spotify playlist is just going to be white noise and lo-fi. One of the books I did read this year was Fredrik Backman’s Anxious People.
Anxious People features suicide and mental illness as central themes, so please read with caution.
Reading Anxious People felt like some kind of experiment.
“Ah yes, here are the 2020 humans, in their natural habitat.”
Anxious People is 2020. It’s messy, convoluted, funny, heartbreaking, and full of people. That was one of the criticisms I saw over and over again, on social media and in traditional reviews: that Anxious People has too many characters. Backman’s novels often feature an ensemble cast, all of a hockey village in Beartown, the residents of an apartment building in My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry. Somehow, the eight strangers brought together in Anxious People felt too intimate, too much.
Here we were in the real world, stuck inside our homes, with our families or roommates, waiting out the hostile situation of a pandemic. Then, inside the world of Anxious People, these strangers who just wanted to look at a nice little apartment, a place to live and dream and be, are suddenly forced to stay there because they are being held hostage. The best thing, in both situations is just to stay put.
Throughout the novel, Backman introduces us to the ways anxiety and trauma can manifest in different people. He describes it as a hunger, a broken firewall, insecurity, an expense, an urge, and noise. Anxiety as a hunger, like Ro reaching for the bowl of decorative limes just to quiet the buzz of fear and panic. How many loaves of sourdough bread did we make this spring? How many fluffy coffees? For many, newly adjusting to being at home all the time, schedules have been thrown, food anxiety has been a prevalent part of this pandemic.
When the hostages are given pizza, it’s a natural progression of events. They expect it. The police agree to send pizza, with the caveat that they’ll negotiate the hostage release after everyone’s had their pizza. Giving and receiving food is a sign of care; it’s how many cultures welcome guests. During times of distress or trauma, food can provide immense comfort. More than once, the hostages contemplate heating up whatever’s in the apartment freezer. Not particularly because people are hungry, but because everyone is experiencing something traumatic. Pizza, though, is preferred. What did we turn to when the pandemic began? Take out, learning to cook our favorite meals at home, our favorite snacks, and frozen pizza.
As 2020 progressed, we began to experience new kinds of burnout. It wasn’t just that we couldn’t go on vacation anymore, or had to wear masks everywhere; it was exhaustion from Zoom meetings, loneliness even though we were in constant contact with friends and family. Digital companionship doesn’t have effect on us. Looking at our own bleak reflection in the computer screen is more difficult than it sounds. It’s easy to get caught up in self-criticism. Oh, did I talk too much in that call? Does my face really look like that? Being overly self-critical, can heighten anxiety, making skin feel like it doesn’t belong on your body, as Backman describes. Being human hurts. Sometimes you have to have a good solid cry in the closet. Alone, or alone with a near-stranger, either works.
Anxious People is, in my opinion, as much about loneliness as it is anxiety. Each of the characters expresses feeling lonely, even in a crowded apartment. Jim is lonely because his son is grown up and doesn’t need him anymore. Julia is lonely because things feel very difficult while she’s pregnant. Zara is lonely because it feels like everyone else in the world is living their lives just fine. They’re all coping with being people.
The truth is, they’re not. We’re all terrible at being people, at being adults. This is a reoccurring theme in Anxious People, how difficult it is to be an adult, just to know what to do all the time. We cultivate these beautiful little portraits of our lives, making us look well-traveled, well groomed, funny and intelligent, even during a pandemic. What we see on Instagram is the 2020 version of the Christmas letter. It’s just the highlights, baby.
Even the bank robber is a faker. Wait! This isn’t how life was supposed to turn out! Oh, you didn’t plan for a pandemic to sweep in a force you to stay at home for an entire year? When the pandemic is declared over, how long do you think it will be before you feel safe in a large crowd again? Two years? Five years? For many of us, the pandemic has been a real loss of security.
Ro and Julia are seeking the perfect apartment for their family and cannot settle on one because it’s not 100% perfect. How do you know what’s perfect? That’s anxiety about security. It’s not about buying a security camera or alarm system. It’s about the relationship, their family’s future, their home. How do we make sure that this home is ours? What happens when disaster strikes? Well, we stick out. Julia calms Ro’s fears because Julia loves Ro. Security in oneself and in one’s home is knowing you have a place to go when disaster strikes. Julia and Ro found theirs in Anxious People, as did the Bank Robber and Estelle.
Anxious People is a big 2020 mood because of these three things:
- Anxiety manifests differently in different people
- Being a human is hard, and we all fake a bit
- We’re all stuck here, we might as well talk to each other
What other books do you think really captured the 2020 mood? Let us know on Twitter @BookRiot.
For some books to lift your mood, check out these 29 Books that Make You Happy Long After the Last Page.