It’s October and you’re looking to snuggle down with a good read. I can help with that! If you’re looking for something to really get into, a book with a lot of interesting moving parts, I suggest Dear Mr. M by Herman Koch.
This is the third novel by Koch translated into English and all three have sold well. After reading this, I promptly went and borrowed the first two, The Dinner and Summer House with Swimming Pool, from my mom, who avidly read them as they came out. (Moms are always right, aren’t they? I should’ve listened to her!)
Dear Mr. M begins as voyeuristic letters written to a well-known author in Norway. The stalker-like letters, which are almost more like diary entries, detail moments in the author’s life and even his wife and child’s movements throughout their day. Creepy, no?
But there is something else, details from a shared past that keep popping up. It seems that this shadowy figure behind the letters is harboring some pent-up feelings about one of Mr. M’s books, a book that although fiction, is based on true events.
These true events are ones that the letter writer was involved in, where a teacher who had an illicit affair with one of his high school students goes missing after last being seen by the student and her new boyfriend. They, of course, are suspected.
Then, there is an abrupt narrative switch and all of a sudden we are back in time, a fly on the wall learning about the true events that led up to Laura’s relationship with her teacher, Mr. Landzaat, and how she falls for her new (age-appropriate) boyfriend Herman and the ultimate disappearance of the teacher. It is almost shocking how the narrative voice switches.
There is yet another switch to the author Mr. M’s perspective and we watch as he handles his decline into authorial obscurity, overshadowed by younger, better writers, and haunted by the fact that he probably reached his pinnacle long ago and most people no longer bother to buy his books or even know who he is. Isn’t this what authors everywhere fear? Gaining fame from one book and then never being able to equal it?
Where the book really picks up is in its intersecting narratives. Past and present, fact and fiction, truth and lies. It contains a sort of meta-narrative, thinking about books that use real events but distort them.
Sometimes the narrator, the letter writer (I won’t give away his identity as identity goes far in this book), goes outside of the book to think about the structure of it, discussing how he is telling three different stories and how the reader might receive them.
The way Koch handles these seemingly disparate sections is truly unique. The book almost feels like three novellas that happen to tangentially intersect and then meld completely into one by the end.
The mystery that I suppose you could say is central to the book, what happened to Mr. Landzaat, is not nearly as important as how it is told. And this is so timely for us as a culture right now!
With shows like Making a Murderer literally making up the public’s mind for them without telling the full story, it is easy to see how information can be manipulated to tell one story over another. If you’ve seen this show and by the end were completely convinced of Stephen Avery’s innocence, think again—everything is not as that documentary presented it. And do some research! Don’t just believe everything you see!
If you are interested in true crime, I also recommend the new Amanda Knox documentary on Netflix. She is the American student who was studying abroad in Italy and along with her Italian boyfriend, was convicted of brutally murdering her English roommate. They were both acquitted and are now free. It’s an amazing look at how a version of a narrative gets way out of hand and how police prejudice (not to mention shoddy police work) and media vilification can create a verdict.
In the book, you might be wondering why there is so much focus on things that are only tangentially related to that main mystery—isn’t that what the book is about, after all? Don’t you just want to know what happened all those years ago!?
I would argue that while the plot centers around that mystery, the book itself is more about the metafictional aspect of building a story. About the manipulation of words and how people use them to tell truths or lies and how that may change over time.
Mr. M used the intriguing tale of two students who may or may not have offed their teacher to write a novel that tells a tale of its own. But is that how it happened? Not according to the letter writing stalker. Whose truth is the real truth? What story can we really believe?
The complexity of the plot, intricacy of the characters, and tone that this book created reminded me a lot of The Secret History by Donna Tartt, a truly magnificent novel that similarly contains a mystery that isn’t as important as the story and the characters that are built up throughout the book.
There is this magical quality about them that serves as a building warning throughout; the reader knows something is off, something bad is going to happen or has already happened, but it has yet to be revealed. That tension is everything.
Though there are three stories contained in this book, there are really four if you count the book itself, which contains all of them, as its own sort of truth and record. In the end, that book brings the narrative back to the fictional landscape that the whole story really lies on. It’s sometimes difficult to remember that while reading.
But that’s the final layer: the reader. Without someone opening the book and deciding to read it, none of the stories can take place and interact, because the real work of the story happens in your mind. The real unfolding is an active process that can only take place once the physical book is here, with you, in the room. Then you too become part of the story, yet another layer, yet another part of the story.
So take it. And begin.
Get your copy of Dear Mr. M
Find out more about the publisher, Hogarth (Penguin Random House)
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Assistant editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.