Before he lands in the ghastly place of the title -- “Summer House With Swimming Pool” -- a Dutch doctor named Marc Schlosser ruminates on the human condition quivering for life in the clinically obese.
An ex-secretary of state has squeezed into his office, all 300 pounds of her.
He puts his stethoscope to her back and this is what he hears:
“There is a struggle for space going on. A struggle that is lost before it’s even started. The fat is everywhere. The organs are hemmed in on all sides… I hear the lungs, which have to push the fat aside with every breath.
‘‘Breathe out very slowly, I say. And I hear the way the fat moves back in to resume its place… The heart is working overtime. The blood has to be pumped to the farthest points in the body. But the arteries are surrounded by fat, too. Now breathe in slowly, I say. The fat braces itself.’’
Moving to her sweaty front, he daydreams about mountain streams and her insufficient husband, before maliciously sending her home with a recipe for pork loin, plums and red wine. He envisions her end, face down in a saucepan.
Schlosser, a doctor to the stars, is the creation of Herman Koch, 60, a Dutch novelist whose chattily nasty ‘‘The Dinner,’’ translated into dozens of languages, made him a global sensation. (Thank Sam Garrett for the pitch-perfect English translation of both books).
As the novel opens, a famous actor named Ralph Meier is dead, and Schlosser is being investigated by the Board of Medical Examiners for malpractice.
Meier’s corpse is missing a little slice of tissue. What happened to it?
Schlosser can’t remember. Otherwise, his memory is just fine as he recalls the day Meier, another fatso, came to his office for amphetamines. The actor wasn’t feeling up to ‘‘Richard II.”
I might point out now that Koch and his stand-in doctor do not demonstrate proper deference to round people, gay people and avant-garde stage directors.
Schlosser’s riff on Shakespeare productions he’s endured includes “‘The Merchant of Venice’ with the actors in diapers and the actresses wearing garbage bags for dresses and shopping bags on their heads and ‘Hamlet’ with an all-Down-syndrome cast, wind machines and a (dead) goose that was decapitated on stage.”
It wasn’t the only time I laughed out loud. This is a very funny book with brilliantly edgy insights into the unmoored and indulgent aspects of modern life.
Meier is splendidly conceived: a gross, barbecuing beast of man with a pretty and amoral wife. The atmosphere at their beach house is not healthy.
The actor forgets to wear pants a lot and plays stupid games with the kids. He consumes so much booze, Schlosser hears the man’s liver crying for a day off.
But did Meier violate Schlosser’s teenage daughter who suddenly disappeared in a chaotic evening filled with too many children and drunken Scandinavians? Why doesn’t she remember anything?
Koch movingly describes Schlosser’s love for his child, a love as intense as his murderous rage against the unknown perpetrator. No matter where he is or what he is doing, Schlosser runs the events of the night through a small screen in his brain.
Then one day, a worried Meier reappears in his office with a malignant, golf-sized growth on his thigh. He’s got an offer to play Emperor Augustus in an Italian-American TV series. Am I well enough to leave for two months? he asks. Schlosser is very encouraging as he eagerly slices into the growth.
“It’s probably just a fat node,” he says.
(Manuela Hoelterhoff is an executive editor for art at Bloomberg News. All opinions are her own.)
To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Brecher at firstname.lastname@example.org Mark Beech, James Tarmy