Dear Mr. M
Herman Koch
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Dear Mr. M
Herman Koch
416 pages
September 2016
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Koch is a shocker, a writer whose precise tales are almost theatrical, never predictable, a stage set to draw the eyes while a subtle plot unfolds behind the curtain. In both The Dinner and Summer House with Swimming Pool, his cultured European characters display worldviews that are familiar yet often shocking, with a penchant for brutal truth and self-preservation. An apt assessment: The New York Times comments that this author “makes Nietzsche sound like Carnegie.” Koch is irresistible, Dear Mr. M a temptation not to be resisted.

The novel is set in the world of publishing. An author, Mr. M, enjoys international popularity following the success of his true crime novel, Payback. The novel is built around the case of a teacher who has an affair with one of his students; he later disappears without a trace. While two students are suspected--the young woman the teacher had an affair with and her boyfriend--no case was ever constructed nor any body uncovered. Now many years have passed since that brilliant success, Mr. M losing the shine of celebrity, less relevant in spite of other novels, even with a beautiful younger wife and daughter: “A person can be bold but not nearly obsolete--but you are both, old and obsolete.”

The presence of a neighbor changes this predictable scenario, a journalist hoping to secure an interview--or so he says. This neighbor, Herman, bides his time amusing himself with visions of Mr. M’s daily activities. Their flats are close enough to overhear the family’s activities, the rituals and anxieties of an older man and his young wife, the aging flesh in sharp contrast to a woman in full bloom. The neighbor enjoys a careful incursion into this family’s private life, well pleased with himself as his plans fall into place. Of course, this neighbor is not what he seems, hiding his intentions as he draws closer to the consummation of his dreams. An innocuous stalker, so to speak, casually meeting his neighbors “by accident”, available if necessary, a stranger suddenly not a stranger.

While this novel is denser than the prior two, (The Dinner; Summer House with Swimming Pool), it has its own identity in a writer’s environment. There a surfeit of words cushion intentions in brisk descriptions and brutal observations, cruelties that sting long after the assault and the smug observations of a predator. Drawing from past and present, Mr. M’s earliest claim to notoriety and his recent creation, Liberation Year, Koch constructs characters with surgical precision. This clarity of vision strips away the façade of propriety, whether the stuffy, counterfeit existence of Mr. M or the distasteful antics of a desperate teacher in pursuit of a former student/lover who has chosen instead a young man, both viewing the pathetic teacher with disgust. The world of fiction clashes with reality, Koch a master puppeteer, always in control as separate realities collide, another page turned in the book of life.

This novel is a more difficult read, the usual sardonic conversations deferred in favor of more complicated lives and intentions, long-buried and well-kept secrets. But Koch doesn’t disappoint, revealing another layer of his fertile imagination, another example of the endless permutations of human behavior, one man grown craftier in pursuit of self-preservation, another the ultimate yoyeur.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Luan Gaines, 2016

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