Hey, book blog world!
I apologize for the hiatus. I planned to take a week off to celebrate my birthday, and all of a sudden we’ve reached the end of July!
Also, I have a not-so-nice review coming your way, and I always find these harder to start. It’s not like I enjoy ripping an author’s creation to shreds, but sometimes it’s just necessary for me to process what I just read. And this, unfortunately, is one of those times.
This is extra unfortunate, as I’m about to deliver a not-positive review about one of my favorite authors. And that quite nearly breaks my heart.
So, before I start sobbing, let’s get this over with.
TW: rape, depression, hate speech toward LGBT community, death, suicide
TL;DR: This book was stinky and kind of homophobic, and I expect far better out of Backman from here on out.
Us Against You is the sequel to Fredrik Backman’s Beartown, a novel set in rural Sweden. Beartown is a village whose only hope and joy is the local hockey team, but when the star player of the high school team rapes a girl, the town falls apart. The first book is largely about reactions to the sexual assault charges–and it’s as ugly as you can imagine (think Brock Turner on ice skates). This book picks up where the last left off, with the now-mentally-scarred (ha!) hockey player fleeing town and the locals trying to reconstruct their identity. The Big Question in this story is, will hockey survive in Beartown after such a tragedy?
Let me start out by saying I didn’t think Beartown needed a sequel. I thought the ending was super poetic without being sentimental and/or idealistic. So, when I heard Backman was writing a sequel, I was already on edge. But, of course, I was going to read it, because it’s Backman for crying out loud!
And now, here we are.
What I love about Backman is his uncanny ability to capture the human spirit in his writing. In this book, I think he was just, wrong. This read like a big-city guy trying to shine a light on small-town bigotry from the safety of his high-rise, but he has no actual personal orientation on the subject. Instead of giving us the gut-punching reality that no easy answers exist for insatiable prejudice toward victims, this book delivers a lovely, quintessential ending tied up with a lovely, unrealistic and inappropriate bow. In fact, the resolution of this text disgusts me; I’m sickened by what it in turn glorifies and marginalizes in its conclusion.
So, let’s break it down a bit more, shall we:
What I Liked:
The Writing Style
This is why I have loved Backman from the beginning–even in a translation, you can see his excellent command of language. He has a way of writing irony and humor into his texts that I love. And, as I previously stated, he does a great job (usually) of capturing the human spirit in his works. Much of what I love about his writing was present in Us Against You, so I feel it important to point that out first.
What I Did Not Like (which is probably putting it a little mildly):
The Big Issues
For most of this book, I had no clue where Backman was going with this book. At the same time, this super predictable ending popped up out of nowhere. Of course the town gets its team back. Did we really think that wouldn’t happen? And yeah, of course they lost to Hed in the first new game. All the “heroes” lose the first time. And I’m sorry, but the Hed fans’ reaction to Vidar’s death was so cliche, I had to roll my eyes. Instead of facing difficult topics head-on, Backman throws out a sweet, sentimental ending that doesn’t even address the issues we started with.
Straight Acceptance is a Tired Narrative and It Needs to Go Away
Okay, so I’m speaking about this from an external perspective, but I can understand why members of the LGBT community are sick of seeing representations of themselves in a straight-dominant world. I read this article about “Love, Simon” a few months back, and I think it speaks directly to the issues I found in Us Against You. Benji’s narrative is dependent, quite literally, on the ability of Beartown to accept who he is. This is an outdated tale. A town’s “tolerance” of a gay man should no longer be the goal, and it definitely shouldn’t be glorified by an author. But Backman never manages to carry this story past that moment when Teemu buys Benji the beer–and then, Benji still has to leave town, anyway! It would be one thing if Backman tried to portray this situation as Not Okay, but instead this conversation on sexuality serves as a leading driver toward the reunification of the different hockey teams.
We need to move beyond the narrative of straight acceptance of LGBT people because it should no longer be admirable for a man to decide days later that his friend still deserves a beer in spite of his sexuality. This is 2018, for crying out loud.
Honestly, when reading this part, I started to question my knowledge of Sweden and I had to Google a few things. You see, I was under the impression that Sweden was one of the most forward-thinking nation on topics related to LGBT issues. Turns out, I was right and they are. Their efforts in terms of civil equity for people in this community is extremely progressive and admirable. And this is where I have to wonder if Backman’s urban bias has entered in. Perhaps some small towns in Sweden are still this bigoted, but this author has created a heinous example of his own nation. And, if he’s trying to capture another nation’s biases (say, for example, the USA), he has still missed the mark, particularly in Benji’s reaction to it all.
And let’s not even try to wrap our heads around the issues I have with Elizabeth Zackell being called several derogatory names associated with lesbians, just to have her remove herself from that identity when Benji seeks her out for comfort and solidarity. Literally, “Oh, I’m not like that. That’s just you.” Like, no. Just no.
And Sune. Good old Sune. I like the guy, but his message of “One day we may get beyond lady coaches and man coaches, to just coaches,” is not the progressive future we are aiming for! We don’t want to erase diverse identities from those who work hard to break into careers and cultures that have previously not accepted them. Zackell is a coach, and a woman, and [apparently] straight, and all of these things are part of what makes her her. None of that should be removed in the name of progress. Progress should be sought with the whole person. So the fact that this is an idea repeated throughout the text was extremely frustrating and disheartening and all-around icky.
And while we’re on the subject of diversity, my third issue with the book was:
The portrayal of LGBT characters and romances
As already mentioned, the only lesbian character isn’t even a lesbian. So, why was this relevant to the plot? Also, why aren’t we more directly addressing the biases around female coaches? Why is she void of emotion–in fact, self-described as incapable of experiencing it? Perhaps these stereotypes were put in place for the twist when Zackell says, “Oh, I’m not gay,” but this is still ridiculous. Backman has given Zackell every terrible lesbian stereotype and seems to falsely assume that all those prejudices will break down when it turns out that she’s not gay. That’s not how reversing prejudices works.
And the slang is never addressed as inappropriate. Good lord, I wanted to rinse my mouth out! I know, men in the world of sports have filthy language, but this was just gross, and no one ever pointed out that it was not okay.
Now, back to Benji, our actual LGBT character. The only LGBT relationship we see is a pedophilic one, again cementing these characters in a terrible and inaccurate stereotype. And the fact that Benji and this teacher were involved is used only to shame the characters involved, not to teach the town any kind of lesson.
Oh yes, the shame. So. Much. Shame. Left unaddressed and surrounding Benji completely. And Benji is served a raw deal, as Backman never offers him any kind of redemption. Instead, in the end, he has to leave.
I get it, not all LGBT stories are happy, still. But that doesn’t mean we need to glorify the bad endings. And, if we’re going to shape this story in this way, we need moments of righteous judgment from our narrator. And I know Backman is capable of it–the rape, the topic of the first book, is always treated as something horrible, evil, and wrong. It’s only individuals’ reaction to it that are portrayed to be poor. Based off of his description of Benji and his writing of Benji’s narrative, Backman is indirectly affirming some homophobic behaviors.
And I know small towns aren’t comfortable with change. I’m from one. But my optimistic butt would like to think that some sort of progress will start worming its way in eventually, and creating narratives that demonstrate how that may be possible seems like a better idea to me than painting the same picture of absolute, immovable bigotry.
Okay, I’ll drop the LGBT thing. Moving on.
“Don’t ever let them see you cry.”
No. Cry if you need to. Sob uncontrollably. Stop asserting falsely that tears are weakness, that it isn’t okay to show weakness, and that the best way to deal with trauma as a victim is to internalize it. This lesson, shared between Maya and Benji, was the last straw for me. Backman had an opportunity to address a serious misconception on trauma and healing, and he didn’t take it. This feeling-less response to seriously-messed-up situations leads to repression, and I’m not okay with the two characters Backman screwed ending up that way.
Toxic Masculinity vs. Vulnerability
Related to the “don’t cry” problem, Backman has a culture conflicted between toxic masculinity and vulnerability. These two very opposed concepts are inconsistent and imperfect throughout the book, although many of the hypermasculine behaviors of many characters–men and women alike–are glorified in the resolution. Behaviors on the rink and in the stands are made “okay” when said individuals take a moment for solidarity. Moments in the locker room affirm several homophobic stereotypes through heteromasculinity at its highest charge. And, ultimately, the women seem to be affirming these behaviors, accepting the patriarchy around them.
Perhaps this was an attempt to capture “true humanity.” But I don’t think so. I think these moments are revealing some of Backman’s own heteronormative, hypermasculine bias.
Examples of this toxic masculinity include: Leo, who is a 12-year-old boy with an insatiable need to fight that no one seems to care about; Peter, who can’t fathom his life without sports; Lyt, who can’t tolerate not being an alpha; the entire A-Team; Richard Theo; and on and on and on.
There are no feminine emotions
This was a little more tolerable in the first book. We were talking about things that make every woman harden up and freeze (which is its own problem, but you get by drift), so a lack of emotion was more acceptable. But the approach to what (mostly just) men are doing to the town of Beartown should be drawing something out of its women.
And then we have the “I’m okay” conversations with Maya, who feels unable to share how she’s really feeling. That, to me, is a huge red flag. And we never really see that fleshed out. Also, her behavior with Ana feels inconsistent with someone who has recently experienced trauma.
Kira’s reaction to giving up her dream for Peter is so lack-luster, and it’s also like there can only be two extremes–she’s either fully devoted to her husband, or she’s fully devoted to her career (double bind, much?). No real thoughts or feelings exist between those extremes for her.
Zackell, like I already said, has no feelings and knows it. She has to be taught by the men around her how to relate to her players (you know, because she’s a woman in a man’s world, so she has to be hard, but she’s a woman in a man’s world, so she needs men to tell her what they need from her. GRRRR).
I’ve decided Backman can’t write women, and he should stop trying.
That was a little harsh. Let me rephrase: Backman needs to work on better capturing the feminine experience if his stories continue to focus on women.
Harping on the rape
The “21/22 Jump Street” films are two of my all-time favorites. In the second movie, Jonah Hill’s character pretends to do slam poetry to impress a pretty girl. His chosen topic is a student who has died of a drug overdose. The poem gets hella awkward, because Hill starts saying, “You’re dead,” over and over and over.
That’s how I felt reading this book and being reminded of Maya’s rape.
For a topic that is so taboo, so complicated, and so dark (and not to mention so triggering), Backman throws the word around casually in several different contexts. It becomes uncomfortable for reasons unrelated to the violence, and the word even starts to lose its meaning. I felt like he was stuck on the one particular moment and had no idea how to describe his way past it.
Yes, Backman, we know she was sexually assaulted. We know it is something that will continue to haunt her. What do we do with this information, and where does that character go now?
And if she stays put, let’s describe her tragedy with a far more sensitive tone, please.
Backman has an amazing ability to set up moments in which you are sure you’ve figured out the outcome, and then he flips them on their head and you’re left in shock.
This did not work in this book.
I’m speaking specifically about the scene in which Benji walks out into the woods with a rifle, and Bobo’s mom dies. The reader assumes Benji will be the one who dies, but he comes back out the way he went in.
- As we’ve established that this is the exact method with which Benji’s dad killed himself, this was an inappropriate use of readers’ knowledge to push forward the plot.
- Benji goes into the woods a lot, so this particular moment really felt like a “cry wolf” kind of situation. And, it happened in the near-middle of the book. Did Backman really think we’d suspect our main character would die halfway through? Come on.
- Ann-Katrine wasn’t even that important to the plot, so why was her death used to move this part forward? Also felt inappropriate and cheap.
Richard Theo creates a lot of these terrible twists, and I’m not sure why we need him as a driving force. With the resilience of the town, I feel Backman had a false need for a proprietor for the hockey team. And we know politicians are corrupt–we don’t need one to demonstrate it by totally destroying the life of a man who’s life is already a shambles. Oy.
And Vidar! He serves as the final twist, and it happens before we even get to know him. I know this isn’t the correct term, but he’s like a “straw man.” Backman needed a character to die to bring about a need for solidarity with the communities, but it couldn’t be anyone anybody really cared about.
And also, why did the death of this almost stranger bring about more hope and change than the rape of one of our main characters?! I’m sorry, but the death of a post-con is an unconvincing uniting device.
His romance with Anna felt heartless, too. Why? Why do we need to break another girl’s heart? What was the purpose? So he had a connection to someone? Because I’m still not buying it.
So, yes, the plot twists usually do good things, but not here.
The Not-Quite-So-Big Issues
This is supposed to be a sequel, so why do we have nearly 200 pages of setup? That’s more than is necessary in a standalone novel, let alone a followup one.
After such a long beginning, this nearly-500-page tome has only a couple dozen pages designated for the climax and conclusion. It felt super rushed, especially with where we began.
The Marriage Plot
I took less issue with Kira and Peter than with other characters’ relationships, but it still irked me. This couple isn’t a stranger to tragedy, and yet their reaction to what’s happened to their daughter feels hollow and insincere. I didn’t believe in their squabble, and ultimately didn’t believe in their commitment to each other. Their marriage felt hollow, at best.
The Pithy Bits were Poopy
Normally, Backman drops these super-philosophical notes into his works, or he has the perfect way to describe a moment. For example, my favorite line from A Man Called Ove is, “People said Ove saw the world in black and white. But she was color. All the color he had.”
Those witty remarks just…weren’t there this time. Backman tried, but many of them felt like regurgitated lines from Beartown, or they were too obvious to hold any nuance.
I’m not really sure what was going on with her. She was a neat addition, but Backman created her and took her nowhere. Most of her moments felt insignificant, except that they often included Sune.
And, Finally, the Typos!
This isn’t really Backman’s fault, particularly because my book is a translation, but my goodness, people! We needed a couple more proofs before this one went to print.
If you’re still here, thank you. I apologize for my rantings, and I appreciate you for sticking with me through them.
I think it boils down to this:
In Us Against You, Backman attempted to tackle a hot-button issue on which he is not an expert, and he set said story in a world to which he does not belong. Thus, his characters, plot, and descriptions fail to capture the actual experience of individuals who belong to this culture, and his conclusion comes off as crass and unfeeling. These subjects are extremely relevant and sensitive, and they need to be handled with the greatest amount of care possible. By asserting his indirect perspectives into this conversation, Backman failed to maintain an appropriate level of empathy and attentiveness.
Did this book hurt my impression of Backman? A bit. Will I now stop reading his books? Of course not. His other novels (with the exception of Britt-Marie Was Here) have been phenomenal. I expect that more great things will come from him before he’s done. And one stinky book isn’t enough to make me turn my back on an author.
With that in mind, have you ever had a favorite author write a book you just couldn’t stand? What was your reaction? Do you still read their other works?