Doc­tor’s ill will a bit­ter tonic

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - An­gela Meyer

Sum­mer House with Swim­ming Pool By Her­man Koch Trans­lated by Sam Gar­rett Text Pub­lish­ing, 256pp, $29.99 ‘‘I AM a doc­tor,’’ is how Marc, the nar­ra­tor of Sum­mer House with Swim­ming Pool, opens his story, be­fore re­veal­ing the bore­dom, rage and dis­gust be­neath the white coat and re­lay­ing the cir­cum­stances that led to the death of an ac­tor, Ralph Meier, and his forth­com­ing ap­pear­ance in front of the board of med­i­cal ex­am­in­ers.

Like Her­man Koch’s pre­vi­ous novel The Din­ner, an in­ter­na­tional best­seller also trans­lated from the Dutch by Sam Gar­rett, Sum­mer House con­tains el­e­ments of the psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller. Meier’s death is pre­sented in the first few pages, be­fore the nar­ra­tive trav­els back­wards and for­wards in time, even­tu­ally land­ing on the events of a sum­mer hol­i­day shared by the Meiers and Marc’s fam­ily: his wife Caro­line and two daugh­ters.

Here, an­other event takes place (for which the reader has been dis­turbingly primed), to do with Marc’s teenage daugh­ter, and the plot fans out, in­tro­duc­ing a range of sus­pects and un­veil­ing the nar­ra­tor’s mo­ti­va­tions and his fal­li­bil­ity.

De­spite an abil­ity to be coldly pre­cise in his dis­gust, Marc is im­pre­cise, inat­ten­tive and care­less in his work. He ap­pears to be a good doc­tor and to him that’s all that mat­ters. ‘‘Pa­tients can’t tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween time and at­ten­tion,’’ he tells us. And when they’re run­ning the gamut of their symp­toms, he says, ‘‘I don’t re­ally lis­ten. Or at least I try not to.’’ His con­tempt is hun­gry and cor­pu­lent through the course of the novel; the only fig­ures to es­cape it are his daugh­ters and a few sad an­i­mals.

On the sur­face Marc is charm­ing and there’s a yawn­ing gap be­tween his di­a­logue and the thoughts the reader is privy to. In con­ver­sa­tion, he chooses var­i­ous re­as­sur­ing cliches; un­der- neath he is con­temp­tu­ous of the ac­tors, writ­ers and artists who fre­quent his prac­tice (though, masochis­ti­cally, he fills his prac­tice with them), of the plays and open­ings he feels com­pelled to at­tend, of people who overindulge, of people he sees as de­viant, and of women.

To dis­tract him­self from the dis­gust­ing bod­ies of his pa­tients he thinks about people scream­ing on a roller-coaster, or a plane ex­plod­ing midair. But the bod­ies en­croach; in ev­ery­day life as well, he imag­ines bod­ies hav­ing sex. The de­scrip­tions are glee­fully sadis­tic: people crush­ing each other, skin flak­ing, dis­eases be­ing ex­changed.

Marc shares long tracts of med­i­cal school lec­tures on evo­lu­tion­ary the­ory and men and women. His thoughts about women are cold and ob­jec­ti­fy­ing, and at times in­cred­i­bly misog­y­nis­tic. He sides with the other men, to a de­gree, in mat­ters of mas­cu­line vi­o­lence: let­ting off fire­works, ram­ming a car, pro­tect­ing your chil­dren: ‘‘From time im­memo­rial, the man has guarded the en­trance to the cave. In­trud­ers are sent pack­ing. People. An­i­mals. A per­sis­tent in­truder can’t say later that he hasn’t been warned.’’ But he thinks of him­self as morally su­pe­rior to the other men be­cause he be­lieves he is aware of the cor­rect bi­o­log­i­cal or­der. He tells him­self, for ex­am­ple, that he would never be­have in­ap­pro­pri­ately to­wards a girl who wasn’t yet sex­u­ally ma­ture. His re­as­sur­ance of this fact, com­bined with ob­ser­va­tions and events through­out the novel, in­clud­ing the trau­matic mat­u­ra­tion of his teenage daugh­ter, lead to a pow­er­ful and qui­etly sick­en­ing fin­ish.

Sum­mer House also ex­poses il­lu­sions and un­der­cur­rents of sup­pos­edly pro­gres­sive so­ci­eties. In­ci­sions are made into tourism, euthanasia and sex­ual ex­cess. There’s an em­pha­sis on hu­mans as an­i­mals. The doc­tor al­ways sees people with­out their clothes. And at a camp­site he is overwhelmed by a ‘‘sick-an­i­mal smell’’, which he recog­nises from his own of­fice: ‘‘Pa­tients who re­fused to have body hair re­moved … who pre­ferred to wash them­selves with wa­ter from a well or a ditch …’’ His dis­gust for con­tem­po­rary liv­ing ex­tends far and wide.

Sum­mer House is a dark satire, scalpel-sharp and more co­he­sive than The Din­ner, with a more com­plex un­re­li­able nar­ra­tor, a com­pelling struc­ture, and a su­tured but fes­ter­ing wound of themes. Marc’s de­scrip­tions of bod­ies, such as the drain­ing of his own in­fected eye­ball, turn the stomach al­most as much as his at­ti­tude and the ac­tions of var­i­ous male char­ac­ters. As with The Din­ner, the nar­ra­tor draws us into his world view so suc­cess­fully that oc­ca­sion­ally we may be sur­prised to find his un­flinch­ing ob­ser­va­tions a salve. One rea­son to read a book (when well-ex­e­cuted) that may chal­lenge, hor­rify and even of­fend is be­cause of the way it can help us dis­sect our own flaws and prej­u­dices, our moral com­pass, and our ac­tions. Sum­mer House can cer­tainly be en­gaged with on this level, leav­ing us alert and un­set­tled.

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