Sunday, November 13, 2016
Book 79: Boycott Herman Koch.
As you'd guess, "forced myself to read it" doesn't imply a very good book, and Dear Mr M isn't very good. It's so far below the caliber of The Dinner and Summer House With Swimming Pool that I suspected it of being the kind of filler Gillian Flynn foisted off on people after Gone Girl.
The problems with Dear Mr M are twofold, as I see it: first, Koch tries to cram a bit too much in, without bothering to give much of it any development or context; and second, Koch relies too much on his formula, which he has to pull out of his butt at the end like a poor man's M. Night Shymalan (or a poorer man's M. Night, since M. Night himself is a poor man's version of himself.)
There's spoilers here, but since you shouldn't read it don't worry about them. The basic story involves an author, Mr. M, who wrote a long time ago a true-crime book based on a teacher who had an affair with a student and then disappeared; the book implied that the students had killed the teacher.
One of the students, Herman, is now Mr M's downstairs neighbor, and the first part of (as well as much of the book in general) is told from Herman's perspective, telling Mr M what 'really' happened, it seems, and also creepily following Mr M's wife and daughter on vacation and sort of stalking Mr M. Mr M, meanwhile, is an elderly writer now with a much younger wife, and has just written a new book about 'the war' which apparently means WWII, a book that is getting only a small amount of publicity.
That is what passes for a plot, although there's a lot more hinted at or brushed over. A large part of the book deals with the students, Laura and Herman, and three trips they take to Laura's parent's vacation home, including the last one when it's just Laura and Herman and the teacher stops by and then disappears; this is, I suppose, intended to give us the background for the rest of the book? It felt, though, like a completely separate book, like it was completely unconnected with Mr M's present-day story.
That present-day story in the 2nd 2/3ds of the book focuses more on Mr M and what he thinks, and what he thinks is apparently some revisionist type of Nazi-sympathy thoughts; I have to say 'apparently' because at best Mr. M's seemingly-shocking thoughts are only ever hinted at: there is an interview in which he may have said some shocking things, and a TV blurb in which he may have said them, and there is a sort of revelation at one point that Mr M's dad was in the Nazi army as a Dutch collaborationist or something. It's all very murky and intended to set up the final twist in the plot, but it utterly fails to set up anything, which makes that final twist seem not shocking and obvious in retrospect, but glommed-on and hammy.
There are long distractions from the story that feel like there was possibly a whole other book here: there is a lengthy bit about one of the students whose mother dies in between two of the trips the students take. There is a lot about Laura's father, who has a TV job and is maybe sort of weird himself? There is a whole chapter of Mr. M's wife opting to stay home from a dinner with all the authors and watch a movie with their daughter instead. All of these feel like they're filler; they add nothing to the story and don't feel connected at all. It's like Koch is just taking a bunch of sort-of ideas he's had and thrown them into the story.
Then there's the fact that the story is about a writer, who has written a book about a murder, and then run into the murderers themselves. It's apparently supposed to be 'meta,' but it feels tired. Much like American writers using 9/11 in any way, it feels like there should be a rule: Nobody uses a writer as a main character. It's just too tough to do and when it doesn't work it distracts from the book. Here, it especially doesn't work. The idea that Mr M has somehow stumbled on the solution to the mystery of the missing teacher and that Herman is in some way threatening him disappears in a haze of red herrings and character sketches and long ruminations about what it is that writers do, so in the end it doesn't even matter if Mr M is a writer or wrote the story of the murder. It feels like mostly Mr M is a writer so Koch can talk about how writers write. It gets boring.
The final twist is this: It turns out that the teacher is going to frame Herman for his own murder; he visits the kids to set them up, with plans that he will bash his own head with a rock and freeze to death, so that the world will blame Herman. Only then, in like the last 5 pages, there's a twist on a twist! Mr M, in the process of writing the book about the murder, gets a letter -- titled Dear Mr M!
-- and learns that the teacher has, in fact, framed Herman for the murder by disappearing, and that he's alive and well and is going to come back and pretend to have amnesia so that Herman gets blamed for maybe trying to kill him but he will be famous, so Mr M goes to see the teacher in Paris, where the teacher has been living under a bridge for several weeks. Mr M then shoves the teacher into the river and the teacher drowns. Just like that.
There's no real motive for it: Mr M sort of thinks about how he hates when people give him ideas for stories, and sort of thinks about how it would mess up his story, but he's already a famous author and has had other famous books. It's sort of hinted that maybe Mr M himself is a sociopath but we don't get much info about that other than a late-in-the-book fistfight between two old men. It's just a twist that existed for no reason than to be a twist.
The final few pages of the book seem to encapsulate the problems with the book in a nutshell: Mr M, having gotten a concussion in the fight, is dying on his couch. We get to see his thoughts, a maudlin short ramble about how he loved his mom more than his dad, but he doesn't want to see either of them and how would he explain the bruises on his face in Heaven and he's glad that there's nothing there, really.
I, as a reader, was disappointed that there was nothing there really. Like Umberto Eco's Numero Zero nonsense or Flynn's The Grown-Up throwaway cash grab, Dear Mr M was bad enough that it will make me at the least hesitate before reading the next Koch novel, which is a shame: after his first two, I was so eager to get this that I was ready to buy it when it came out. I'm glad I waited; the only thing that would have been more disappointing than this book would have been paying ten bucks to read it. I'm 99.9% certain that it was sitting around on Koch's shelf and published (or maybe re-published, or translated and published) only The Dinner made it big.
I had a whole other paragraph here that expressed my ongoing dismay with humanity, but I deleted it. Just don't read this book. And, hell, don't go read Koch's other books, either. Don't let him get away with dumping trash on you and forcing you to read it. Authors should respect their readers, and publishers should, too. Obviously Koch doesn't. We've got to start holding people responsible for the crap they foist off on us.