The Short Version: When a famous actor and patient of Dr. Marc Schlosser ends up dead, the doctor finds himself under review from the Board of Examiners. Flashing back to the summer that had gone before, we learn that Marc may well have killed him – and a summer vacation at the actor’s titular home may’ve been the crux of it all…
The Review: Herman Koch kicked up a bit of a stir last year with The Dinner, managing to beat out several far more worthy novels for a slot on the ToB bracket for one thing. But I enjoyed that novel – I found that, while it indulged some of the worst tropes of unreliable narration and keeping things hidden in an annoying way, it dug into some serious issues and questions about human nature, society and inequality, about what it means to be a parent and to love your child, about what you wouldn’t do for them. Yeah, it was contrived to a fault but I let the contrivances slide, giving the benefit of the doubt to the thoughts that were provoked.
No such leniency here. I’m actually not really sure I can write a better review than Lionel Shriver’s review in the NYTimes Sunday Book Review this past July. Her clinical dispatching of the more preposterous elements of this novel (my favorite line being in the wrap-up when she calls the novel “inexplicably careless”) is spot-on. For this novel is just that: preposterous. There are several key plot elements that simply don’t make sense. If you thought your daughter had been raped (and, by the way, YOU’RE A DOCTOR) wouldn’t you think to go to the police or even come up with your own makeshit rape kit? If you slice through a malignant tumor into healthy blood, that doesn’t magically transmit the disease all around the body. And, basically, nobody actually acts this maliciously stupid. Some people are unintentionally stupid and some people are malicious – but this is a rare blend of stupidity and maliciousness that makes for a terribly unpleasant read, even as Koch shows flashes of knowing how to wind the gears in the early stage of the novel.
But speaking of unpleasant. Readers, I found this book to be mostly a waste of time: unlikable characters who are also completely uninteresting. But the thing that, surprisingly to an extent, saves this book from one-star ignominy is the fact that it nearly caused me to be that passenger on a crowded subway train one morning. In fact, I struggle now to write about it without a flop sweat – and I am not a squeamish person. I have read of horrific destructive acts of violence without much more than an “…eugh” – but this, friends, this…
Without giving too much away, after a bleak and somewhat destructive evening, Marc has an issue with his eye. And so, using his medical know-how – and in a moment that comes truly out of nowhere, feeling authorially completely unlike anything that has come before or will come after – he decides to lance the swelling in his eye with a needle. I started to read the words and immediately closed the book, then reopened it to skip to the next page, but the damage was done. I began to breath shallowly, my palms got sweaty, and my vision began to shrink. I debated staying on the train, having only two stops to go to my office, but I saw that sign on the 6 train that says “if you don’t feel well, get off the train” and so I staggered off at 28th St and collapsed onto a bench where, yes reader, I passed out. Just for a moment, but I did.
And honestly, it made me so mad. Because nothing in the book to that point had actually earned such a reaction. It was, instead, just prose finely tuned towards one particular end: grossing somebody out. And while Koch achieved his goal with aplomb, that doesn’t justify his having done it. It was entirely, completely, 100-freakin-percent unnecessary. It did not further the plot, it made no difference to how Marc was acting, it was just an extended gross-out. That’s why I don’t go see films like Hostel.
Rating: 1.5 out of 5. In the end, this was the theme of the book: it was just unnecessary. It’s an unnecessary addition to the canon of unreliable narrators, an unworthy follow-up to The Dinner, and does absolutely nothing new and/or interesting. The characters are not only unlikable, they are uninteresting. They are repugnant or annoying or both. The plot hinges on several moments of utter ridiculousness – and it nearly made me pass out on the train and not in a way that felt earned. Honestly, I think less of The Dinner having now read this book.