“Once a celebrated writer, M had his greatest success with a suspense novel based on a real-life disappearance. It told the story of a history teacher who went missing one winter after having a brief affair with a beautiful student of his. The teacher was never found. Upon publication, M’s novel was a runaway bestseller, one that marked his international breakthrough.
That was years ago, and now M’s career is fading. But not when it comes to his bizarre, seemingly timid neighbor who keeps a close eye on him and his wife. Why?
From alternating points of view, where no one is to be trusted, Herman Koch weaves together an intricate tale of a writer in decline, a teenage couple in love, a missing teacher, and a single book that entwines all of their fates. Thanks to M’s novel, supposedly a work of fiction, everyone seems to be linked forever, until something unexpected spins the “story” off its rails.
With ever increasing tension, his signature sardonic wit and world-renowned sharp eye for human failings, Herman Koch once again spares nothing and no one in his gripping new novel, a barbed performance that suspends readers in the mysterious space between fact and fiction.”
My Thoughts: A novel by Herman Koch is going to have certain elements to it that are distinctive to him. His characters are mostly deplorable. His prose is succinct but extremely powerful. He will draw the reader’s attention to the failings of modern society. His stories are not necessarily enjoyable as he explores the idiosyncrasies of humankind, but they always leave a lasting impression. Dear Mr. M does have Mr. Koch’s unique style but unfortunately, the impression it leaves on you is not a favorable one.
The problem with this particular novel is that there really does not seem to be a point to the narrative. It may be a murder mystery or it may be nonfiction in the guise of fiction. It may be a tale of human failings or a lesson on the dangers of attraction and lust. It has elements of all of these, and therein lies the problem. Your attention is split between so many different paths that it becomes difficult to remember them all, let alone analyze them as he dictates.
There is also an issue with the various plot lines that go nowhere. There are many different narrators, but not every narrator obtains closure to his or her story. The narrator shares his or her story, perhaps even split into different sections so that we hear from them several times throughout the entire novel. However, in many cases, we only get their story to a certain point, and then we never hear from them again to find out how their version ends. Some of these narratives are minor, but some encompass the entire novel. There is no doubt that the omissions are deliberate; yet it seems an odd decision to make as an author and a frustrating one for the reader looking for ways to tie the various narratives together.
In spite of the novel’s failings, there is no doubt that Mr. Koch has a way with words. Herein is where Dear Mr. M does shine. Every word he uses is a deliberate choice that furthers a reader’s knowledge of the characters, the setting, or the plot, such as it is. He is not verbose, but he manages to convey more with his paucity of words than some authors are able to do with a less restrained style. His style is reminiscent of Jane Austen, not in her use of language but in the way they both skewer society with their observations and use of satire. His is a highly effective narrative style that befits the tone of his novels. Alas, not even that is enough to leave a more favorable impression on me in regards to his latest novel.
My lackluster impression of Dear Mr. M is not enough to convince me to avoid Mr. Koch’s novels in the future. After all, his ability to mock modern society and capture the darker sides of human nature are not just impressive but also uncomfortably entertaining and thought-provoking. Every author is allowed to have a dud every now and then. For me, Dear Mr. M is that dud.