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 who is 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, which is his fictionalized account of a real incident that happened in Amsterdam some 40 years ago involving two high school students who allegedly murdered 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; 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 for 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, specifically, the group of high school friends involved in the incident, their school life, dynamics, and relationships with one another, 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 one another. Readers may get a sense of what is really going toward the middle of the book but by the end might once again feel utterly confused.
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 should be written, what it should contain as well as how it differs from or compares to reality. While reading the book, one can’t help but feel that perhaps Mr. Koch is projecting himself as Mr. M, either 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 may come across in real life who do strange, questionable, and sometimes immoral things. 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 teenagers and their personal problems, I found their stories quite compelling. As a whole, this novel will confound you and leave you with many unanswered questions that may keep you up all night, so 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