Sunday, November 21, 2021

Dear Mr. M by Herman Koch


This is one of those books where I wring my hands and ask myself, "What will people think of me for liking this?" Because at its heart, DEAR MR. M is about some pretty horrible people doing some pretty horrible things and also reveals a bleak and cynical reflection of an unkind world. His other book, THE DINNER, was like that, too, and I think that unless you are a bit of a jaded pessimist with a dark sense of humor, you probably won't like his books. Which is probably why their Goodreads ratings have tanked.

I personally loved this book, but it wasn't quite perfect. Like THE DINNER, it started out as what I thought would be a five star read but ended up losing a star as the story wore on. Part of that is because this story is just so needlessly complex. There are multiple narrators. The POVs all revolve around a writer, M, and a book he has written called Payback that is about a real crime (in this universe) about a teacher who had an affair with one of his students and was then (allegedly) killed by the student's boyfriend when he started stalking her.

The book opens in a really strong way with someone stalking the author M and his wife. Then there are other POVs. The wife. M himself. The "real" teacher and students as the doomed affair takes place. The writing is bleak but gorgeous, when the author doesn't ramble. The translator did a really good job converting this from English to Dutch. I mean, I'm not sure about how well the ideas themselves were preserved but all the writing flows really smoothly and feels really natural. I loved the settings. The icy freeze of the (alleged) murder setting contrasted against M's carefree days as a middling writer.

Where this book fell short for me is that, like THE DINNER, I didn't feel like the payoff was worth it. I read the story and was spinning out my own theories, wondering how all the different POVs and events would intersect... and I was disappointed. It just didn't feel as shocking or WOW! as I'd been hoping for. I also don't really get the point of making one of the characters a (I'm assuming) Nazi apologist, unless it was to show he was an awful person? I felt like the author (the author of this book) was trying to show how there's all this simmering classism and racism lurking beneath the surface in Europe but everyone puts on a show of being shocked and outraged when someone blatantly puts it out there, but it was weird. There were a couple other weird things like that where they didn't really feel relevant or necessary except to be like, "Whee, look how shit everyone in this book are! Don't you HATE them?"

Obviously, the answer is yes.

That said, I loved about 80% of this miserable book. It says some interesting things about writing, humanity, and the dark reaches of the human psyche. They aren't particularly nice things, but they feel honest, and there's something compellingly chilling about that.

4 out of 5 stars

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