Title: Dear. Mr. M
Author: Herman Koch
Publication Date: September 06, 2016
Rating: 3 Stars
“A reader reads a book. If it’s a good book, he forgets himself. That’s all a book has to do. When the reader can’t forget himself and keeps having to think about the writer the whole time, the book is a failure. That has nothing to do with fun. If it’s fun you’re after, buy a ticket for a roller coaster.”
Dear fellow Babblers,
I finished Herman Koch’s newest, perhaps bestselling novel quite a few weeks ago. I absolutely loved The Dinner, which I read for a Narrative Theory class I was taking a few months back because of Koch’s mastery of elements which render an event a story. So logically, wandering through the aisles at my locial bookstore and coming across more from Koch, I expected to be once again swept away my his intricate, stellar writing. Sadly mistaken. I have been putting off writing my review for this book mainly because I was not quite sure on how to approach an honest review without influencing my review by my overall perceptions and feelings of the book as a whole. But since I’ve been receiving quite a few requests lately to share my thoughts on Dear Mr. M lets jump straight to the babble…
The tour-de-force, hair-raising new novel from Herman Koch, New York Times bestselling author of The Dinner and Summer House with Swimming Pool
Once a celebrated writer, M’s greatest success came with a suspense novel based on a real-life disappearance. The book was called The Reckoning, and it told the story of Jan Landzaat, a history teacher who went missing one winter after his brief affair with Laura, his stunning pupil. Jan was last seen at the holiday cottage where Laura was staying with her new boyfriend. Upon publication, M.’s novel was a bestseller, one that marked his international breakthrough.
That was years ago, and now M.’s career is almost over as he fades increasingly into obscurity. But not when it comes to his bizarre, seemingly timid neighbor who keeps a close eye on him. Why?
From various perspectives, Herman Koch tells the dark tale of a writer in decline, a teenage couple in love, a missing teacher, and a single book that entwines all of their fates. Thanks to The Reckoning, supposedly a work of fiction, everyone seems to be linked forever, until something unexpected spins the “story” off its rails.
With racing tension, sardonic wit, and a world-renowned sharp eye for human failings, Herman Koch once again spares nothing and no one in his gripping new novel, a barbed tour de force suspending readers in the mysterious literary gray space between fact and fiction, promising to keep them awake at night, and justly paranoid in the merciless morning.
This novel is masterfully crafted in a way that causes the reader to often pause for the moment of epiphany to come to them when everything suddenly makes sense. Koch tactfully weaves together a narrative surrounding a history teacher, Jan Landzaat’s disappearance, possible murder, that takes place not long after he leaves a young couples cottage. Laura and her new, buck-teeth, scrawny, and disturbed boyfriend, Herman are staying spending the winter holidays together in the suburbs and all seems timeless until Jan shows up at their front door. And what is this hip, young teacher pursuing? Laura. Only a few weeks ago he and Laura were having an affair, up until Herman enters the picture to “sweep Laura off her feet”. Jan hopes to win Laura back, but fails. He puts together a master plan that results his being “stuck” with the seventeen-year-old couple overnight due to his car having sunk below feet of snow. The next morning Herman braves the chilling, Dutch cold to walk with Herman to the village to seek after help so Jan can finally be on his way. Durning this trek, somewhere between the moment Herman and Jan leave Laura and their journey to town, Herman and Jan become separated. That same night Herman returns to the the house. Laura rushes into his arms and, noticing that Jan is no where to be seen, questions Herman. “I lost him,” is all Herman can reply…
Years later we have an aging, once notably acclaimed writer, Mr. M who uses this story for his own benefit. He produces Payback which retraces the logic of the disappearance/murder, adding some romance here, and removing some characters there, all under different names. Now, Mr. M still writes and often reluctantly gives interviews and does readings at the local library, but not with the same vivacity and prestige as he once had.
Mr. M’s movements, outings, and actions are all followed by his sinister downstairs neighbor who we later find out, is indeed the Herman of forty years ago. This section of the novel is told in the second person, so we get the feeling that Herman is indeed speaking to us readers. His tone is confrontational and utterly troublesome, for we get the sense that while the world and all its inhabitants may seem out of sorts to him, he isn’t too “all up there” himself.
I enjoyed how Koch satirically brings together the lives of separate characters across diverging time frames, which initially appear incongruent until the final pages. These characters are all psychologically twisted and are in no way relatable. The dialogue that occurs between them and the events that they partake in causes the reader to question and critique the workings of the mind: What does it mean to hive to die ?
The reason for my three stars is the dismissiveness I felt that went to the plot development and the characters. There is much description and meditations that cause one to self reflect on writing as a medium and all the obstacles involved in writing a book and sending it off for publishing (hence the multiple scenes where Mr. M groans and whines about his writer colleagues and friends). There were several instances that I felt Koch went off on a tangent to the basic storyline such as in the events following and leading up to the death of Lodewijk’s mother. Herman remains a perverted and curious character throughout the novel who doesn’t seem to undergo any actual transformation – he remains completely static, aside from the passing of time. As readers, we never truly find out what actually happened between Jan and Herman – whether Jan really did disappear into thin air, or Herman had murdered him.
A greater portion of the novel surrounded literary techniques and evocative imagery that would portray Herman as an unlikable, yet intriguing figure. However, this was belittled by all of the asides and tricks that Koch superimposed within the text. The stories become complex and a bit too much effort goes into deciphering the events than is given to the pleasure us readers expect from reading. I definitely would have enjoyed Dear Mr. M a lot more if there was less of the ramblings and more of a thrilling suspense. Suspense for Dear Mr. M is limited to build-up, but never climax, which is the reason for a whopping three stars.
Read anything by Koch? In the mood of something with thrill, suspense, and a musky twist? Maybe Dear Mr. M is for you, maybe not…?!?!
(Book image credits go to Goodreads)