Beartown: A Book Review
What do we want from the Novelist?
Beartown: A Book Review
What do we want from the Novelist?
*spoiler alert denoted below*
Fredrik Backman is a competent, adroit storyteller, and I recently finished the 2017 English translation of his novel Beartown. This is a review of the book, and my opinions on the role of the novelist in the 21st century. If you aren’t interested in that, then why, pray tell, are you reading Vinay Prasad’s Observations and Thoughts?
Beartown is a small, fictional village buried in the woods of Sweden. A town where lives revolve around youth ice hockey, and whose own fortunes mirror the rise and fall of the league. It’s a kaleidoscopic novel, giving us glances at a large cast of characters including Maya, Kevin, Amat, Benji, Bobo, Ana (kids) and Peter, Kira, David and Sune (adults), among others.
The writing is competent. Backman is not a poet, but facile with words, in the vein of Stephen King and Lee Child—two best-selling writers, whose work I enjoy. He is not, however, Javier Marias or Michael Ondaatje or Donna Tartt or Barbara Kingsolver. He can make you see the town, and hear it, but you don’t smell it, nor feel it in your bones.
A great writer shows you things, but Backman often just tells you. This is the price he pays for the Kaleidoscope, which many consider the most difficult form of fiction. You can’t turn 20 people into rich, three-dimensional characters in 400 pages of mass paperback fiction. You need 2000 pages or more, or you must focus on 3 characters. In his attempt to feature so many-- all of Backman’s characters become flat.
The central animating event of the book occurs midway, when the star hockey player, Kevin (17) rapes Maya (15). There is no ambiguity for the reader. He holds her down, tears the buttons off he blouse, and forces himself inside her, leaving bruises on her arm. She claws his hand. When Amat walks in, she seizes her opportunity, and knees Kevil in the groin and escapes. She charges out into the Swedish winter, and is lucky not to freeze to death.
Maya does all the things that are natural for an unexpected victim, but also falls into all the errors that will make prosecuting the case challenging. She tells no one. She hides her bruises. She burns the blouse. Only a few days later, she tells first her friend, then her parents, but at that point: material evidence is gone.
Novelists are storytellers, and there is no monopoly on the sorts of stories people want to hear. Most stories are predictable. They have heroes and villains. They have familiar narrative arcs. Good people tend to triumph over bad people, but along the way, they suffer, overcoming fear or doubt. Mythology recapitulates itself a thousand times over a century of writing.
People want familiar stories, and Backman delivers. Backman’s book is a New York Times best seller with glowing reviews on Amazon, and offers the predicable lessons that many readers crave.
Kevin is a rich kid. Obviously, used to getting what he wants. His dad sponsors the team, and, obviously, used to giving his son what he wants. Kevin thinks women owe him sex (because he is a star), and he believes Maya wanted it. He knows his wealth and power will shield him from justice—and it does (in the legal sense). Only in the ultimate paragraph do we get some glimpse that he later confesses his actions, but this, emblematic of Bachman’s style, is merely told, and not shown.
Amat is a hero. Of course, he is the child of a foreign woman, who works as a janitor in the Hockey stadium, till her back aches. He has next to nothing—never had a new hockey stick in his life. While he is naturally tempted by money—when offered by Kevin’s dad in quid pro quo for keeping quiet—he drops it, perhaps reluctantly, into the snow. At the critical juncture, he confesses what he saw—first to the hockey team—and then the police. Of course, he is brutally beaten as a result, a beating he stands up for, and receives, again wanting to protect his friend Zacharias. He is cliché tumbling over cliché. Of course, it is the poor, immigrant kid whose mother works hard, who is everything good.
Hockey culture is misogynistic, and Bachman makes no secret where Kevin was shaped. “Do you know why Bobo cries when he has sex? … the pepper spray and the rape whistle” “…. does [your mom] cup your balls carefully, the way you like it”. “do you know why lesbians get so many colds? Lack of vitamin d.” And on and on, a predictable stream of locker room talk.
Maya doesn’t get justice in the traditional sense—the police dismiss after a preliminary investigation, but, of course, she learns to shoot a gun, and finds Kevin and makes him kneel and promises to kill him. “Now you will be scared of the dark too, Kevin. For the rest of your life.” In the wake of the rape, she grows up fast, mustering unfathomable courage. “I am your daughter. I have wolf’s blood.”
Familiar stories tumble over one another. Popular athletes behaving poorly. Vigilante justice. Outsider boys whose mothers work hard are heroic, and rich kids who are spoiled do bad things, and get away with it. And many more I didn’t mention—like Benji—who is closeted gay in a sports town intolerant to it, but of course “Benji is not like anyone else at all. How could you not love someone like that.” David, who will soon be a father, but broken hearted because Benji never confided about his sexuality in him (this pains him because he wanted to be open minded in a way his father never was). David writes to Benji, “still the bravest bastard I know.”
The sentences are familiar.
“Kevin doesn’t walk out onto the ice. He takes it by storm”
“For the perpetrator, rape lasts just a matter of minutes. For the victim, it never stops.”
“the world is a cruel place if you are a girl”
“when they were children everything was different. It feels like only yesterday, because it was”
There are three dozen entirely familiar characters and narrative arcs in Beartown, and they are told competently. Perhaps the only detail Backman blunders is the death of Peter’s first child. He never fleshed out the idea, it seems superfluous to the character, and unresolved at the end.
Familiar stories are why the book is a bestseller, and why many find joy in it. And there is nothing wrong with that—familiar stories are grounded in truth. Yes, rape goes unreported and perpetrators get away, and victims are not experts in preserving evidence, and, yes, often it is someone you know and trust, and locker room talk and culture can be foul, and towns love to protect athletes, etc. etc. Backman is not saying anything untrue about the world—he is stringing together many familiar narratives.
But for me, a year from now, I won’t remember a single word in Beartown. Nothing about it surprised me—it’s like a movie where you can guess the next line—I have gained no insights into the human condition, and it is not what I am looking for in a novel.
What is the role of the novelist?
I want to read books where the stories are complicated and messy, where everyone is a turbid shade of gray, where justice is not achieved—in any sense-- where you don’t know who to root for, where you had it all wrong, where love is unresolved, where life is cruel but also merciful and beautiful, where I can’t predict the storyline, where mythology is shattered and recapitulated, and shattered again.
What would Backman’s novel be like if the reader didn’t witness the rape? What if the author set it in a college campus in 2023, and leaned heavily into ambiguity? What if Kevin was more complex than merely an entitled, rich, misogynist, hockey star? What if he had redeeming qualities, and what if Maya had flaws? What if Amat made mistakes? Perhaps he never came forward—or promised Maya he would but reneged at the final hour? What if Backman told us about fewer characters, but went deeper, and showed them in all their broken, flawed beauty?
To me—this alone is the role of the novel. In a universe of familiar stories on TV and film—the novel may be the last place to read the unfamiliar, to be close to people who are broken but lovely, evil, heroic and gray—all at once.
There are of course, exceptions. The TV show Fleabag is so achingly brilliant that watching Waller-bridge write action hero movies is as painful as watching Michelangelo draw caricatures at the county fair. But, largely, the novel alone, can do this because words are closer and more intimate and more malleable than film or television. Writing is closer than any other artform.
Right now—I am with you—not in your ear or even in your vision, but inside you head. That sumptuous feeling when you read, and the words on the page melt away, and the story is playing in your mind in every dimension. A novel can do more—and we need it to do more.
Dear reader, now you have seen two reviews by me. Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, which I hailed as a luminous masterpiece, and Beartown by Fredrick Bachman, which I assure you that I will not remember a word of in a year. Of course, these are only my aesthetic preferences, and, although I have written a couple books, I haven’t written any novels. As a writer, I am sure both authors worked very hard. I don’t wish to take away from the achievement of finishing a book.
Instead, I write so that people can recommend books to me that will be closer to me vision for the novel. I may be near the halfway mark in life, and there is not enough time to read all the books I will love, but I hope, always to read more of them. I want the writer to tell me stories I have never heard before and break my heart in ways that surprise me. I need the novelist to help me understand the hardest and deepest questions in life, to show me what moves us.
I wish someday before my time is up to read a book so gorgeous, that I can’t bring myself to turn the last page, never wanting it to stop, wanting instead to sail on forever.