Rarely does an example of obsessive compulsive personality disorder come across so purely as it does in Swedish novelist Fredrik Backman’s moving novel A Man Called Ove. The novel has also been made into a film, and the story succeeds in both mediums. It reveals the lovable underside of the compulsive personality, and it also shows how tragic it is when compulsivity comes to define the personality exclusively.
I loved reading and watching it and I’ll tell you why. But first meet Ove.
Ove: Grumpy Yet Endearing
Ove is a grumpy, middle-aged guy who’s lost both his job and his beloved wife Sonja in the space of six months. Without them he’s lost now, too.
Ove is radically practical, militantly frugal, and combatively caring. He’s all about doing the right thing. Rules. Laws. Ordinances. He always drives the speed limit. As Packman writes, “Ove does things the way they’re supposed to be done.” He’s never taken a sick day in his life.
Ove, of course, always thinks he’s in the right. He can’t question whether he’s gone too far. This is one of the dangers of the compulsive style: because you believe you’re fighting for The Good, you can’t see when you’ve turned to the dark side.
And as so often happens to people with a compulsive style, he often forgets what the rules are for in the first place. It’s the principle that counts. Like if someone overstays the 24-hour parking rule in the guest lot. It doesn’t matter that it’s otherwise empty. It could get filled if everyone stayed there more than 24 hours.
He inspects the housing development he lives in every morning at 6 AM. “He checks the status of all things by giving them a good kick.” He oozes disdain for the rabble who don’t share his sense of decency and responsibility.
Trading Music for Machines
But what’s just as important as what Ove does do is what he doesn’t do. He swaps his gramophone for a diesel generator and no longer listens to music. I can’t think of a better metaphor for the compulsive style gone bad; the capacity to savor beauty is traded for machinery, the capacity get things done.
Backman chooses to tread lightly on the tragic side of the story: the standoff with his long-time buddy over his choice of car, the many people that he hurts, and perhaps worst, his inability to live without his wife. It’s not just that she was so wonderful. It’s more because of his failure to develop as a whole human being who can feel and relate on his own.
Tragedy: Ove Loses His Soul
I won’t tell you what happens, but I will tell you that Backman romanticizes Ove’s need for his wife in order to feel anything close to normal. Backman treats this as lofty and admirable. And while he closely notes Ove’s suffering at being separated from his wife, he tries to convince us that it’s OK that Ove never cultivated his own capacity to appreciate beauty or people.
Carl Jung would say Ove had projected his anima onto her, his soul, his own feminine side with its capacity for connection, emotion, receptivity, and the capacity to appreciate beauty. She lived it all out for him. They had a division of labor. She took charge of conversations. They sort things in the apartment between his and hers; hers are all homey or lovely, his are all useful.
And once she was gone, his soul was gone too. “Things don’t work when you’re not at home” he tells her in one of his many graveside conversations. “He was a man of black and white. And she was color. All the color he had.”
Redemption and the Compulsive Personality
Backman conveys the humanity underlying the rigidity and perfectionism of the compulsive personality. You see a grumpy old guy, but you can also see that underneath he is committed to doing right by people, even though that commitment has become painfully skewed.
Part of the beauty of the story is that his new neighbor, Parvaneh, a middle-eastern woman pregnant with her third child, can see through him to his core. She finds him amusing, and she craftily challenges him to drop his defenses. To the extent possible, she brings out the best in him. I wish we could all do that.
What makes the story so popular is its depiction of a man who is interpersonally challenged making some slight progress in his relationship with humanity. There is some redemption. He’s 59. It’s never too late.
Ove is simultaneously endearing and enraging, but still realistic, a compelling example of the beauty and tragedy of the compulsive personality. Sometimes we can see ourselves more clearly by seeing our tendencies in someone else first. Backman’s Ove offers us this opportunity.