Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Review: "Dear Mr. M" by Herman Koch

The novels of Dutch writer Herman Koch are not for everyone. To some, he can be the literary equivalent of someone who picks a scab, watches it heal and then picks it again. His stories are usually brutal, both in the story’s actions and then thoughts of the characters. He has a true gift for staring into the abyss that can sometimes form when humanity is pushed to its breaking point: the damage we do to ourselves and others, the pettiness that seems to effortlessly move toward the horrendous after a few swift fateful movements. Some will find these qualities unpleasant and become dismissive toward his books. If you can’t tell already, I am happily not in that camp of people, because over the course of three books, Koch had become one of my favorite international writers, blending human pathos and narrative intrigue seamlessly, with a few well-placed twists hidden within his books that are nothing short of kicks in the teeth. His first translated novel, The Dinner, was simply as good as everyone said it was, begins over a mundane dinner and ends with a startling and horrifying example of unreliable narration and the lengths we go to protect our family. His second, Summer House with Swimming Pool, while not as good, still packs a punch and leaves the reader pondering the characters’ casual cruelties. But this new novel, Dear Mr. M, is not only his most complex, but is also easily his best. It unfolds a tapestry of four different stories that over the course of the book’s 400 pages converge in violent and menacing ways that left me nearly out of breath. It begins as a letter written to M, a successful writer who is on the downturn. His most successful book, titled Payback, was based on a true story of a teacher who went missing when he confronted a student he’d had an affair with and her new love interest. The writer of the letter tells us that he is a neighbor of M’s and at one point follows his wife to their country home. The perspective of the story switches frequently, from this letter back to the time of the supposed crime where we meet Laura, the beautiful daughter of a TV personality, and her group of friends. In this group she meets Herman, a man whose unsightly teeth mask a charming and anti-social person, whose favorite pastime is filming cruel pranks he plays on teachers and laughing at the footage. We also get the perspective of the teacher, a horridly unfaithful man whose cowardice is hidden by his good looks. All these stories crash violently together, and I won’t spoil what happens, but I will say that this book does require patients that books like these sometimes don’t require, but once everything is in place, and when two writers are attempting to beat each other to death after a gala, and with two disturbing twists (one on the second to last page) and the book’s final bleak line, you won’t soon forget this caustic book, whether you liked it or not. 
Rating: 5/5

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