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Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Review of DEAR MR. M by Herman Koch

4 Stars
This is a “literary” thriller:  it has a mystery to be solved but also examines the literary world.

The book opens with an unnamed narrator (later identified as Herman) stalking his neighbour, a writer known as M. There is a definite undertone of menace as the narrator makes statements like “Yes, I have certain plans for you, Mr. M” and “I’m here, and I won’t be going away, not for a while yet” and “I consider you a military target” and then proceeds to follow not just the writer but his family.  Gradually, it is revealed that in his bestselling book, M used events from Herman’s adolescence and distorted them to create an exciting plot.  Using a highly publicized case involving a teacher, Jan Landzaat, who went missing and was never found, M distorted events in his fictionalization and basically portrayed Herman and a friend as killers. 

The novel examines the connection between fact and fiction and the process of creating and crafting a work of fiction.  Does a writer have the right to appropriate facts and use people as material for fiction, especially if by rearranging events for the sake of the plot he negatively impacts the lives of the real-life people involved?  Herman certainly wants to exact retribution because he feels M exploited his life.  Authors observe people and the world around them and inevitably incorporate them in their work, but should they be allowed to do so with impunity?  Writers are taught to eliminate coincidence because “Coincidence undermines a story’s credibility” and “Coincidence ruins the credibility of a writer” though “reality is glued together with coincidence.”  What if a coincidence is a key factor in a real-life event and its omission totally distorts reality?  Koch introduces his theme in a tongue-in-check epigraph:  “Anyone who thinks he recognizes himself or others in one or more characters in this book is probably right.  Amsterdam is a real city in the Netherlands.”

There is considerable suspense in the book.  Koch uses a number of techniques to keep tension.  When action reaches a dramatic point, the perspective is abruptly shifted to a different point of view.  The viewpoints of a number of characters are given, some in first and some in third person narration, and there are frequent shifts between past and present.  There is more than one unreliable narrator so the reader is left to try and decipher the truth.  And, yes, there are unexpected twists in the plot. 

One benefit of the changing points of view is that the reader’s feelings about a character change.  Herman describes M as a fading, mediocre writer who is narcissistic and exploitative.  When M becomes the narrator and the reader becomes privy to some of his thoughts and feelings, a more sympathetic picture emerges.  When the opinion of others is added, like that of M’s wife, another dimension is added.  By the end, M is fully developed.  The same is the case for Herman; parts of his personality are described by various people with whom he comes in contact.  Flashbacks to his youth help round out his character. 

What is interesting is how similar M and Herman are.  Herman accuses M of invading his life and stealing it for his purposes, yet Herman does the same with his video camera.  He photographs people in personally devastating moments, invading their privacy, and then mocks those people in a public way.  There are other similarities:  both have troubled pasts, both are jealous of others who are more successful, and both have mean streaks that occasionally come to the fore. 

One aspect I really enjoyed is the way characters mock others for things which worry them.  Herman constantly refers to Landzaat’s long teeth and Landzaat agrees that “his own teeth weren’t exactly his ace in the hole” but when he thinks of Herman he describes his teeth at length:  “And his teeth!  His teeth were too weird to be true.  To call them irregular would be putting it mildly.  Those front teeth that curved inward and the open spaces between his canines and the molars behind made him look like a mouse more than anything else.  A mouse that had been smacked in the teeth by a much bigger mouse.  How could a girl be drawn to that?  They were teeth that let the wind through, a girl’s tongue would have a hard time not getting lost in there.”  M is married to a much younger woman and worries about growing older and being forgotten, yet M and his wife mock N, an older colleague who always has a young woman on his arm, and M comments that N’s “countless wrinkles and folds in his cheeks and around his eyes seem to deepen even further – the landscape of gorges and deep valleys above which the sun is now doing down.”  Koch definitely knows a lot about human psychology.

Readers who enjoyed Koch’s previous books The Dinner and Summer House with Swimming Pool will certainly enjoy this one.  There are sections that I found a tad tedious – the discussion of Dutch politics and the changing relationships among Herman’s various friends – but there is much to recommend this book.  Koch is an author who pokes fun at authors but examines serious issues as well.  And provides well-rounded characters and an entertaining plot that keeps the reader guessing. 

Note:  I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.