There are all kinds of scary novels, and this one, out of the Netherlands, Herman Koch’s “Summer House With Swimming Pool,” is perhaps the most unsettling sort. It’s devilish.
The first-person narrator is Marc Schlosser, a general practitioner. He’s a grumpy, dissing fellow, not unlike the narrator of the author’s recent dark thriller, “The Dinner.”
Marc is not what you most want to believe a doctor is like. He does his job, all the while looking at the clock, smiling placidly. But he is cataloguing the disgusting traits in the human bodies before him. Folds of fat, breath that smells bad, wrinkles, sagging genitals, hairy butts. He hates it all. And what right does he have? Well, he’s funny. That buys him some leeway. Might we feel the same way, then, if we were doing his job?
There are other things Marc doesn’t like. Artists. And their art. For this general practitioner seems to have a clientele that is well-known or famous or is trying mighty hard to be those things.
Among the performances Marc has had to endure: “ ’The Taming of the Shrew’ in which all the roles were played by women, ‘The Merchant of Venice’ with the actors in diapers and the actresses wearing garbage bags for dresses and shopping bags on their heads, ‘Hamlet’ with an all-Down-syndrome cast, wind machines, and a (dead) goose that was decapitated onstage.” So he groans to get free tickets to “Richard II.” Yet he and his wife, who feels the same way about pretentious artists and their boring work, make an exception and attend.
The play isn’t so bad. They get a charge out of swilling down liquor with the artistic elite at the after party. And they get to snort with amusement that the famous actor Ralph Meier actually licks his chops as he looks at Marc’s lovely wife, Carolyn.
It turns out that the famous Meier and his wife Judith are so taken with the Schlossers that they invite them (and their beautiful young daughters) to a party and then to a summer house (with swimming pool). Other guests are a famous movie director and his young girlfriend.
You’ll be hooked. The summer house isn’t that fancy. Mr. Koch’s observations are right on the money. Marc looks with surprise at a heavy dark wood dining table and chairs covered in red velveteen. “The owners are British,” Judith Meier explains.
Details like this help support the descriptions of the people who behave more like frat boys than accomplished adults. Meier leers over Carolyn and the girls. Marc starts a little something with Judith. The Meiers have two sons who glom onto the two gorgeous Schlosser girls. The young girlfriend of the director sleeps a lot, Meier pulls down bikini bottoms, and everybody becomes more compromised as the vacation week progresses.
This isn’t a paradise at all. There is discomfort (even to sleeping in a tent on hard ground). Marc craves a dinner of meat, but his host keeps slapping fish on the grill.
That host, Ralph Meier, is as self-absorbed as they come. He doesn’t even notice that his hand goes into his pants when he looks at the young beauties.
All the while Marc’s own libido argues with his innate disgust for any body that isn’t beautiful. He’s a strange narrator, admitting to things most people would talk themselves out of. Brutally honest at times, self-deceived at other times, willing to use his profession to hurt, he’s … different and interesting and in the end, terrifying.
Is this a swimming pool read? Kind of. You’ll want to know who did what to whom and why and how far the lies go. You’ll marvel at how close Europe is to America.
You might want to give up when the juggling of plot threads gets so complicated that you don’t care if the bowling pins fall. Why juggle eight when two would make a very good show? But you won’t likely stop because you’re in. You’re in for the long haul. And you also might think twice about baring your butt for the doctor next time around.
Kathleen George is a professor at Pitt. Her most recent books are “A Measure of Blood” and “The Johnstown Girls.”