"There are people who wake up each morning with the thought: There's got to be a solution for all of this, things can't go on like this. Hofmeester is one of those." That's how Arnon Grunberg introduces Jörgen Hofmeester, the lead character of his discomfiting novel, Tirza. Grunberg wastes little time asserting Hofmeester's character: he's a putz, a man who sacrificed desire for propriety, a man proud of living well on Amsterdam's finest street, a man committed all his adult life to fitting in, normalcy, and planning ahead with an eye on the promised land of "financial independence," a man who for all that is painfully abnormal -- "the white middle-class illness... in the flesh," he thinks of himself -- and is now on the brink of empty, lonely old age.
The novel finds Hofmeester at a crucial juncture in his life: a graduation party. Not his, but his youngest daughter's, Tirza. The apple of his eye -- the name means "She will be my delight" in Hebrew -- is going to celebrate and then take off for Africa with her older boyfriend. Hofmeester has already lost his job as an editor; his boss, in announcing that Jörgen couldn't be fired and would be paid for the next two and a half years until retirement to not come in, asked, "Have you ever, in fact, actually discovered an author at all?" He has already lost the money he had squirreled away for a lifetime, meant to deliver that financial independence to himself and his daughters and lost when he rolled it into a hedge fund that collapsed in the 9/11-induced recession. His older daughter has abandoned him to run a bed and breakfast with her partner in France. His wife has been gone for three years, only the longest and latest leave of absence she has taken from married life. And in the run-up to the party, Hofmeester is even robbed of his martyrdom: his wife shows up at the front door as if she never left (not sure what to do with her, Hofmeester complains that she's interrupted his casserole preparation).
It also takes little time to realize, whether because of the filter of Hofmeester's psyche or because Grunberg wants it this way, that all of the characters in the novel are more than a little fucked. The members of the Hofmeester clan have their own flaws, flaws that don't mesh well with one another. The bit characters that pop into the narrative amplify Hofmeester's flaws and anguishes through their own problems. The closest to a normal, centered character is Tirza's boyfriend Choukri, who, in Hofmeester's eye, bears an unfortunate, inescapable resemblance to Mohammed Atta.
Grunberg works through this pitiful stew with precision and a sharp eye. It seems like he snaps off a clean, biting line about Hofmeester, one of the other characters, or civilization on every other page. The plot builds from its recursive, minimal setting, with Hofmeester's party preparations filled with reminiscence and self examination, into a painfully exhilarating and embarrassing climax when the guests arrive. And somehow, after this shambolic peak, when Hofmeester flies to Africa in the last third of the book to search for a missing Tirza, the book gets more painful, more difficult to read, more appalling in an unspoken way, until the final plot twist is revealed and with it, sad as it is, at least the vague sense of finality hovering over Hofmeester is explained and the knot in the reader's stomach untied.
Hofmeester is a familiar type and the story a familiar genre, an ordinary schmuck seeking redemption. This man, on the verge of retirement, tries to reconcile his lifetime of failure and loss with what he hoped to do, to write a reference work for German Expressionist poets, to live without children, to be free. In lesser hands, in the hands of a writer inclined to convention, there could be something heartwarming in all this.
There is nothing heartwarming about Tirza. Sex and violence lurk beneath the surface of Hofmeester's and civilization's decay, and even the children are less than true innocents in the narrative's distorted lens. There is no one to cheer for, and yet, the reader hopes for something better. As loathsome as Hofmeester shows himself to be, Grunberg does well to take advantage of the reader's trust, such that only the most complacent reader won't feel empathetic pain over Hofmeester's many missteps and regressions. The book is good, and maybe great, but it's unpleasant and depressing. Then again, that's our problem.
At the end of Tirza's party, when Hofmeester's ruinous end is all but foretold, when the depraved man he has hidden for a lifetime has already come out, Hofmeester begs Tirza to play on the cello for him one last time. He collapses on the floor, then into Tirza's arms, asking, "Why does everything hurt so much? Why does everything hurt so badly?" Tirza doesn't know; Hofmeester doesn't know. The only sliver of comfort Grunberg allows the reader is the chance that we might at least know the answer, might know a little better than his sad characters. Of course, with that faint comfort comes the ugly other shoe: what to do about this? What's the solution?