I feel like I’ve written this blog post before. It was when I read Fredrik Backman’s other runaway bestseller, A Man Called Ove. In that post I explained why the novel was sentimental crap not worth reading. So you’re asking yourself ‘okay, if you didn’t like A Man Called Ove, why read Bear Town?’. Legit question, friend. Legit.
Truth be told I can’t resist being part of the zeitgeist. Ha. Okay, lie. I am far outside the culture zeitgeist. I still confuse the Kardashians with Star Trek’s Cardassians. But when it comes to novels I like to pretend I have a least a passing awareness of what’s new and hot. And sometimes, against my better judgement, I read those things.
I should trust my past reading self more. And I should trust the first thirty pages. When the first thirty pages smell like sentimental crap AND the last novel by the author was wretched… it’s time to put down the book. In this case I was held hostage. Actually. I couldn’t get up from my chair for reasons outside my control and it was either read Bear Town or sit alone with my thoughts for actual hours and so, obviously, I chose to read the novel.
If you find yourself in a similar reading-whilst-hostage scenario (perhaps you are at your in-laws for Thanksgiving) then you, too, will discover a novel full of trite declarations and a hero-overcomes-adversity-to-win-the-day plot line that induces mild gagging.
On the trite declarations: I do not exaggerate in saying that every chapter begins and ends with some kind of gross platitude and over generalization about the state of the world (e.g. ‘community is everything’ or ‘friends are what make life worth living’). These are peppered with ominous claims about later plot moments (e.g. ‘storm clouds were brewing’ and ‘after this party nothing would be the same’).
Imagine you can get past how annoying these inclusions are and manage to focus on character, plot and theme. Here we find one dimensional characters or (worse still) a character who behaves so far outside of expectations that you find yourself flipping back to the beginning to make sure you didn’t miss a crucial chapter that set up this behaviour. Lest you think that maybe Backman is making some point about an inner darkness that lurks in us all, after this major plot moment the character continues to behave like a troubled miscreant, suggesting he was this way all along – and so what in the what was I reading before when his character was so underdeveloped that there wasn’t the slightest foreshadowing or inclusion of character flesh and meat.
(Spoilers) The plot is what keeps this novel from being thrown across the room in favour of thinking about chores and American politics. Set in an isolated small town, we follow the fortunes of the town through its hockey team, as the junior team attempts to win the national title (and in so doing bring back the economy and fortunes of the town). Into this somewhat predictable sport-quest narrative is introduced the rape of a young woman by one of the hockey players. The novel then attempts (not deftly, I’d note) to explore how the town responds. It does well enough in observing the victim-blaming and slut-shaming and bullshit nonsense of protecting male athletes above all else. But then it falls down in its revenge-narrative, again in the lack of character development or plausible motivation for character actions. (Another novel might rely on imagery to consider how such an act impacts characters, but this novel – in its total commitment to telling you exactly what it’s about – makes its position clear: innocence is lost, people forever changed, life over, etc.)
So I’m going to tell you to skip this one, but you – like me – will probably ignore my advice and read it anyway, because everyone else seems to be, and someone will give it to you, and you’ll get swept up in the triumphalist music that seems to be all but booming from each page, and suddenly you’re 500 pages later and you… wish you’d been reading anything else.