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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

3 Riveting Naked-People Novels by Herman Koch

In an NPR interview, the internationally best-selling Dutch author Herman Koch was asked about reader reaction to his first English-translated novel, The Dinner, a disturbing story about people doing despicable things and enabling their children to get away with horrifying crimes. In reply, Koch said, "It goes from people saying, 'Well, this seemed a nice man in the beginning, but in the end he is not,' to put it mildly. And there is another part of the readers who say, 'Finally, a character in a book who actually does what we are all thinking.' This is the other extreme. Sometimes I noticed that in southern countries, they see it more like a social criticism. And in Holland and in northern countries, they see it more as the storyline, or the actual question of: How far would you go to protect the ones you love?" I live in the USA, which I guess qualifies as a southern country, and I certainly fall into the latter category.

Herman Koch has remarkable writer's gifts: X-ray vision for the hidden thoughts and inner workings of everyone from an old man to a teenage girl, perfect pitch for dialogue, and such command of structure and plot that my persnickety editor's mind disappears and I read with a fan's full abandon, confident that I can give myself totally to the unfolding story. Here are three briefs about his novels:

Dear Mr. M
The plot of Koch's newest book (Hogarth, Sept. 6, 2016) is complex with so many subtle turns and such heart-pounding tension in the last hundred pages that I literally could not put it down. Suffice it to say there are a group of school kids in Holland. There is a teacher. There is a writer. And they all weave together in a kind of murder mystery—but ignore what I just said because this is not a typical mystery. It's not a typical anything. It is an exposition of the inner workings of humans at their worst and a bleak philosophical treatise about good vs. bad, right vs. wrong, the nobility of action vs. inaction, the vicissitudes of power to create balance, loss of innocence and the nature of existence that is so well done that, even though my own philosophy about the final nature-of-life topic is quite different, having just finished reading, all I can do is bounce from couch to computer, yelling "Yay! Bravo!" The book is riveting, entertaining, and magnificently rendered.

In Dear Mr. M, an anonymous letter writer says to the author (M) he is stalking that M has a kind of obscene expression: "You're not looking at the reader, no, you're challenging him to look at you—to keep looking at you. It's like one of those contests to see who'll avert their eyes first; a contest the reader always loses." I suspect Herman Koch, too, does this. Not once during his virtual gaze that permeates the story does he blink. But neither did I. I was too enthralled, drawn by an ineffable magnetic force into his meticulously honest creation exposing how we really are.

The Dinner
A dinner between two couples—two brothers and their wives—plays out like a chess game. The players strategize. The first-person narrative of the brother, Paul, who is telling the story feels sometimes like a director's commentary on a DVD movie; in this case there is a gap between what happens and Paul's behind-the-scenes knowledge and twisted concerns. There are horrendous crimes. There is strategizing to un-know them, rewrite them, or make them disappear.

This is a psychological thriller and what makes it most compelling for me is that it answers questions I've long puzzled over regarding a certain kind of upper-crust White privilege (in this story, a possible metaphor as an unnamed genetically transmitted disorder). We've all seen symptoms of this disorder; there is the recent story about an 18-year-old who was on probation for killing four people while drunk driving. He went AWOL with his parents after they got him probation using something called the affluenza defense. This is the syndrome The Dinner so chillingly brings to life, answering the questions about how somebody becomes so Teflon-covered that he can do as he pleases, hurt anyone who displeases him, and remain above the law; how he comes to assume that the law will be on his side, he will always get more chances, and can put whatever "mistake" he's made behind him, and how this is often the case.

Summer House with Swimming Pool
This is the gripping story of a doctor who cannot bear to see people uncovered, as he bares himself and everyone around him through his narrative about hurt and revenge. The book is shocking the way a train wreck is, but also howlingly funny at times as well as necessary.

I used to have a boss who'd suddenly declare, "People are no damned good." And we'd all laugh. In times of great frustration with other people's neuroses, I used to joke about opening an abuse therapy practice, and people would laugh. There's the famous Monty Python Argument Clinic sketch. Hilarious. Why? Because these things tap into the truth—our fleeting, secretive, psychopathic thoughts. I will never act out as Koch's characters do, but seeing them reeling in their bare-naked psychopathy is a relief—the relief of truth.

* * *

If I had to classify Herman Koch's talent, I would say he fearlessly writes naked people. He dares to strip away façade—manners, civility, clothes, and skin—and write every nuance of a flailing human ego in a world of other flaming egos. He writes civilized, educated humans in their most primitive form—terrified for their survival in a world where they can't control anything or anyone or ever "get enough," where they are tribal, competitive, judgmental, craving, and scheming.

No, this is not how we want to see ourselves, but I believe we all contain all these things as well as our more compassionate, generous, and curious qualities. We can loathe his psychopathic characters or, even as their behavior disgusts us, we can feel their fear and their defenses, stare straight in the eyes what we have witnessed in others and denied in ourselves because it is too uncomfortable to acknowledge, and say, yes, it is true, and, in seeing, become more of our complete selves.

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