Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Summer House with Swimming Pool

I didn't plan to write about this novel because it is so horrifyingly evil that I'd almost feel guilty recommending it. But I was struck by a line I read in Sunday's "New York Times Book Review," which changed my mind. Edmund White, in his cover article about the new Francine Prose book, says, "It's a daring thing to write about an evil person......And yet evil characters are usually dynamic and fascinating, upstaging all the goody-goodies."

Do you agree?

If so, keep your eyes fixed on June when Herman Koch's new novel, after the ferociously diabolical, "The Dinner," will be released. After you read "Summer House with Swimming Pool," you will never be able to look at your family doctor in the same way.

Marc Schlosser's medical practice suits him perfectly. The office runs smoothly, each patient allotted his twenty minutes of face time. The doctor listens, placidly smiling, blank eyed, while his mind percolates with mean-spirited thoughts about his patients. Still he makes sure each leaves with a prescription for something, anything that will keep him coming back, and moves swiftly on to the next.

Schlosser has what would appear to be a great life, a wife he still cares for, reasonably enough, and two lovely pre-pubescent daughters whose beauty makes him inordinately proud. The family is not rich but they certainly want for nothing, until, that is, aging film star and man-about-town, Ralph Meier and his wife Judith, enter the picture along with their two teen-age sons.

Koch creates in Ralph a stereotype of an actor on the wrong side of forty. Pushy and egotistical, Ralph thrives on being the center of attention. He's not Marc's type at all and yet the two families form an uneasy friendship that's fueled by too many late-night parties, too much booze, and a hefty dose of sexual tension between the couples.

Against his wife Caroline's wishes, Dr. Marc manages to navigate the annual summer camping trip with the girls, to a beachside area that's only spitting distance from the Meiers' palatial summer house. In just a matter of hours, the two families "accidentally" run into each other at an outdoor restaurant and, by the following day, Ralph and his wife Judith insist that the Schlosser family move their camping equipment to the side yard of the summer house.

Koch ratchets up the tension in such a cautious, understated way that, as you read, your stomach turns and you're not even sure why. Where "The Dinner,"  was in your face, "Summer House with Swimming Pool" is a more subtle, psychological look at a similar theme. How far will a person go to protect his family? Herman Koch provides a stunningly provocative answer.