In subtext and content and delivery, Herman Koch says to novelists everywhere, “Do better.” As a writer, I think I got a little more from this book than a non-writer would. I caught all the nods to form and style and competition. Sure, this book is a thriller, after a fashion, but it is also a punch in the face to the lazy writers of the world. Toward the end of the novel, there’s a passage that gracefully explains my hatred for writers like James Patterson and Clive Cussler, these word mills employing authors-for-hire who will only ever be remembered for how many books they sold and not what their books were about. There is a place for their laziness and business savvy and quantity-over-quality approach, but, in my opinion, it is not the in the world of literature. No, not everything needs to be a work of art. I simply wish the books that have something to say, something meaningful to say, outsold the air-headed authors of the world.
Why, yes, Virginia, I am a book snob. Now kindly fuck off and let me get on with my review.
*clears throat and does a horrible impersonation of Movie-Theater-Voice Guy*
In a world of books whose titles all start with THE GIRL… and authors who regurgitate last year’s bestsellers’ lists, Herman Koch dares try something different.
Not necessarily new but indeed different.
Here is a story told in two different, usually-unpalatable styles: second-person close and third-person omniscient. You’re gonna fuck up and find yourself more confused than Tom Cruise at a Chippendale’s if you don’t pay attention. The first third of the book is much different than the second third, but the last third brings everything together in a string of Ah-ha! moments. And then Koch brings everything home with a final, fitting twist. But, while this is, at its most basic, a literary thriller, its potency far exceeds that of other novels of its kind.
As always, Koch delivers on the nastiest details, but what I found startlingly hilarious was the description of M. I’ve seen interviews with Herman Koch, and I’m pretty sure he was describing himself. The unshaven face… the teeth… Koch is the kinda guy you imagine you can smell his breath through your computer screen, a sickly bitter aroma of old coffee and rotting food lurking at the gum line. In that sense, this book is quite meta. Here is Koch poking fun at himself while proving that, although he has his shortcomings, he’s much better than most authors on today’s bestsellers’ lists. It’s a bold statement. “I might be ugly and stinky, but I can do this one thing better than you.” Koch doesn’t have to tell us this, though. The work speaks for itself.
Yet I felt the burn of Koch’s dissection of writers, too. He riffs on the authors who’re “down to earth”, those authors who are open to personal contact from their readers, authors who are approachable. While I’ve always loved having a personal relationship with my readers, I gotta say, Koch is right. I’m still an asshole. Why? Because, by making myself easily accessible, I am, in a way, saying I am better than those authors who choose to keep their distance. “Well, at least I’m not like So-and-So. He won’t even return emails from fans. What a cockhead.” But is the detached author a cockhead? No, he’s not. Well, maybe he is, but being unapproachable doesn’t not automatically mean he’s a cockhead. He might simply be anti-social. Or perhaps he’s an asshole who realizes he’s an asshole and would rather be judged on his work than his demeanor. Such a person should be commended. At least I think so. I surely shouldn’t be placed above him just because I choose to make myself available to readers.
Man, but this book brought some stuff to light for me. Made me change the way I see how I might be seen, and I gotta say, I don’t care too much for my reflection. And isn’t that the best part of good literature? When it in some way big or small turns the mirror on ourselves and perhaps makes us reevaluate the way we perceive something?
Holy shit, this book is good. Fuck. It’s the kinda book that makes me less articulate. All I wanna do is cuss and bitch about how well written it is because, you know, I didn’t fucking write it.
Oh, and no worries. I’m not going to distance myself from you guys. But I think I might stop talking about how I feel about my own work. After all, it’s not my place. The books are published. They’re yours now. Who cares if I don’t like some of them? The only thing that matters is that some people do like them. And that should be enough.
In summation: All the rambling you’ve just read is brought to you by a guy who read a terrific book that changed the way he sees a few things. You might not have the same experience, and that’s okay. I, for one, loved everything about this novel. Dear Mr. M should be required reading for every author.
Final Judgment: A mirror that shows the parts of us we’d rather not be able to see.