I first heard about Herman Koch back in 2014 when I read his bestselling novel The Dinner, which I quite enjoyed. Last year I learned that he had published a (relatively) new novel, Dear Mr. M, which, I knew I just had to read.
I guess Dear Mr. M can be classified as metafiction as it is a story within a story. Without giving too much away, the novel is mainly about a man stalking a once-famous writer, identified only as Mr. M. The nameless stalker is actually Mr. M’s downstairs neighbor, who has been keeping tabs on him and his family for quite some time. In the beginning, it is not clear why the stalker is so interested in Mr. M. Mr. M, though quite famous back in the day for writing a few bestsellers, is now in his 80’s, and though he recently released a new novel about the war (one of his favorite topics), he is, by and large, washed up. The novel that made Mr. M a household name was Payback, his fictionalized account of a real incident that happened in Amsterdam some 40 years ago, of two high school students who allegedly murder their teacher.
Divided into several parts, the narrative of Dear Mr. M shifts from the first-person to the second-person to the third-person depending on where you are in the story. One part of the story, the main part, is told from the perspective of the stalker, talking to Mr. M, or the reader, about what he thinks of Mr. M as a writer, and as a person, and of his books – all of which aren’t very nice. Another part of the novel is told from the point of view of Mr. M himself; what he thinks of himself as a person and as a writer, what he thinks of his fans and readers, and what he thinks of the book world, including fellow writers, publishers, and critics – most of which (except the part about himself) also, aren’t very nice. The third part of the novel is about the incident fictionalized in Mr. M’s novel Payback; about the group of high school friends involved in the incident, their school lives, dynamics, and relationships with each other, their teachers, and the two students involved in the crime.
As the novel unfolds, it is unclear how the different parts and characters relate to each other. Toward the middle part of the book, the reader may get a sense of what is really going on, but by the end might again feel utterly confused with everything he/she had just read.
Dear Mr. M is often funny, in a dark, and ironic way. The novel mostly critiques itself through the stalker’s and Mr. M’s ideas of what a novel should be, how it is written, what it should contain, and how it is or isn’t like reality. While reading it, one can’t help but feel that perhaps Mr. Koch is projecting himself as Mr. M, whether as how Mr. M sees himself, or how the stalker seems him.
Like The Dinner, Dear Mr. M is full of characters who are flawed, unlikable, and even downright nasty – in short, characters you come across in real life, doing strange, questionable, and sometimes immoral things, just like real people might in real life. From his two novels, Mr. Koch seems to be quite adept at writing about unsavory characters and their misdeeds.
Dear Mr. M is a rather simple story told in a complex, unique way. The story from the stalker’s point of view is suspenseful and riveting, and though most critics commented on the overlong story of the teenage friends and their personal problems, I found their different stories quite compelling. As a whole, this novel will confound you and leave you with many unanswered questions which may keep you up all night – don’t say I didn’t warn you!
Dear Mr. M (2016 – English translation from Dutch) – Herman Koch
Hogarth; 399 pages (paperback)
Personal rating: 3/5