Lessons & Literature: “Anxious People” tells an unlikely story of connection
How a book about a bank robber and a hostage drama made me rethink our COVID-19 era lives.
October 4, 2020
I picked “Anxious People” by Fredrik Bachman out of five September options through Book of the Month, a book subscription service I use with my friend from home. Every month, I receive a blue box, a bookmark and a hardcover copy of whatever commercial fiction option I selected from the new releases the service provides. These are usually books we read for entertainment; they’re fast-paced, likeable and almost always crowd-pleasers. Bachman’s most recent novel, though, tapped into themes that deeply resonated with me, and its strength lies beyond its entertainment value.
Set in a small Swedish town, “Anxious People” follows a struggling single parent who decides to rob a bank to make ends meet and then accidentally takes eight strangers hostage in an apartment. At first, the book seems dark and improbable, and it certainly is at times, but its unconventional plot boils down to a story about humanity and connection. The bank robbery and hostage situation are, in the end, comical distractions from the story’s essence, which we come to understand much later. As we sit with the hostages and the bank robber in a crowded apartment, they begin to empathize with each other, and we begin to empathize with all of them. Trapped in a room together for hours, they find in each other exactly what they need.
Ultimately, an unlikely sequence of events brings these characters together, and I was at first skeptical of the way they all seemed to fit together, fusing like puzzle pieces that never should have been part of the same box to begin with. By the end, though, this dynamic was the reason I loved the book. I began to think about how so many of our own relationships and interactions are a matter of chance, how the driving force behind most things we experience is pure serendipity. We, too, end up in rooms with strangers we come to love. Isn’t that all life is, in the end? The universe rolling the dice and throwing people at us, some of whom we pass right by in the bread aisle of the grocery store and others we stop to know? Our lives are the people who randomly end up in our first-year dorms, the strangers we talk to at a party on a whim, the coworkers we spend hours a week with by the pure chance that we live in the same city and applied for the same job. Everything is so absurdly arbitrary: where we end up living, who we end up meeting, who we end up becoming.
I’ve been thinking about how this idea fits into the lives we’re currently living, in which it’s become a public health imperative, really, not to meet anyone new. The pandemic has diminished opportunities for haphazard, unplanned human connection. We don’t gather, and when we do, it’s deliberate, with a small number of people we handpick. Of course, there are a few exceptions, like when we pop into stores or find ourselves in other public spaces here and there, but even then, we try to avoid as much human interaction as possible. I struggle not only with the deep feelings of loneliness this new lifestyle yields but also with the idea that its consequences are in some ways permanent. Maybe this level of distance, however temporary, is changing the course of our lives. Maybe the random people we would have ended up in random rooms with could have changed us forever. When there aren’t random people and random places and random connections, are we just stuck? Frozen in the fabric of lives the universe stopped sewing in mid-March?
Of course, the capacity for growth, change and even chance exists within our own homes. The world still exists even if we can’t go out and see it. But the odds that we end up sharing time and space with strangers in an unplanned way? Incredibly small. As I read “Anxious People,” I thought about how an elderly widow, a retired couple, two expectant mothers, a real estate agent and a career-obsessed banker—a mixed bag of individuals from all walks of life—found each other in the same place and filled each other up in ways they didn’t realize they even needed. I miss a world with strokes of luck like that.
I’d usually try to reframe this problem and pull out a silver lining where I don’t really see one. Maybe now is the most unique opportunity we’ll ever have to work on ourselves. Maybe now we can finally slow down. Maybe now we can find hobbies and get in shape and figure out what we really want. But, to be honest, these ideas lost their appeal a few months ago. Yes, let’s always interrogate our lives and ourselves and reckon with the big things we forget about in the midst of a busy life. But let’s also not be afraid to look outward, to lean into hope that we’re all fibers in a larger matrix, to remind ourselves that our fullest networks and lives are still ahead of us, even if things feel stagnant and predictable now. In the thick of this time of masks and Zoom and maybe isolation, remember that there are places and people we haven’t yet seen or met who will incidentally show up in our worlds, someday, and remind us of the beauty of chance.