Not far into his tricky and suspenseful novel Dear Mr. M, Herman Koch has one of his characters provide a yardstick for judging books:
"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."
By that standard, does Koch's book succeed? Mostly, yes.
The Dutch novelist, who gained worldwide attention with his scabrous and misanthropic characters in The Dinner and Summer House With Swimming Pool, is on to something different here: longer, more complex, but still casting a cold eye on human behavior.
On the surface, the story is simple: A high school teacher has an affair with a female student, she breaks it off and the teacher disappears. The Mr. M of the title is a writer, now old, who made his fame decades earlier by turning the case of the missing teacher into a bestselling novel.
Mr. M now has a much younger wife and a small daughter, and his career, while still moderately successful, is definitely winding down. His books don't sell like they used to, and other writers complain that he keeps repeating himself.
Enter a mysterious stranger living below Mr. M's apartment who listens to his, and his wife's, every move. Who is he and what is he after? The path to that knowledge is a twisting one, and some readers may find it a tough slog.
That's because Koch has taken several literary forms and welded them into one book. He opens with an intriguing suspense story that inspires a fair amount of dread, then veers into a long central section that is essentially a young adult coming-of-age novel. This is followed, somewhat out of the blue, by a Q&A with Mr. M about the nature of fiction. The novel eventually reaches a satisfying conclusion, but in putting all this between two covers the result is less Swiss watch and more what the British call a dog's dinner.
In an interview with NPR, Koch explained, "When I'm writing I get easily bored. So changing perspectives, for me, was more like writing five short novels and packing them all into one. And I thought it just became a richer book."
He gets points for breaking out into new territory, because when Dear Mr. M works, which is most of the time, the reader will certainly forget about the writer and go along for the dark ride.
Contact Mike Fasso at [email protected]