The Dinner

the dinnerTwo sets of parents have decided to meet at a high-end restaurant in Amsterdam in order to discuss a terrible crime committed by their children, and what their next steps should be: Serge and Babette; Paul and Claire. This, at its simplest and most claustrophobic, is the premise of Herman Koch’s novel The Dinner. During the course of the novel, narrated by Paul, we learn everything these couples eat (or don’t) and everything they know (or don’t) with the gradual stripping away of secrets — including quite a few secrets that ought to have stayed under guard.

Interestingly, the crime that the two beloved sons, Rick and Michel, have committed is revealed almost right away.The violence is realistic, and the crime has been instantly uploaded to YouTube, so any lingering hope of secrecy is faint at best. But the real secrets have to do with Paul’s absolute loathing for his brother Serge, a successful politician, and his certainty that everything that Serge touches is a sham. Paul criticizes Serge’s choice of restaurant, his demeanor, his adoption of a son from Burkina Faso (all but a publicity stunt, according to Paul), his summer house in the Dordogne… everything is rotten, false, and bitterly wrong. And he wants revenge for it.

The sheer nastiness of this seething cauldron of anger takes the focus away from the actions of the teens (sure, what they did was horrible, but…) and puts it onto Paul’s personality. He is a former high-school history teacher, retired for medical reasons, and as we see the ways he is prepared to defend his wife and son, we understand more and more about his unreliability. I, for one, though, wasn’t exactly gobsmacked by this; I saw Paul as unreliable from the beginning. The real problem is that Koch provides a way out: Paul has some sort of neurological problem, and perhaps so does Michel. If this book is considering the nature of evil, and thats what it is, these characters just became much less interesting. (I’ll add that the food at the restaurant is much less pretentious than the author seems to think it is. Serge Lohman orders… a steak. Big deal.)

In fact, this leaves only one character left to be interesting, and that’s Claire: she, too, is willing to defend her family under any circumstances, and she’s not “sick.” What does that mean? But Koch doesn’t explore this notion, he just leaves us with the idea. This book is very readable, and it has some quick-and-dirty slices and jabs, but is too oddly shallow to think about the problem of evil or responsibility in any interesting way. I’d leave you with a metaphor about being careful about ordering dessert, but I’ll let you figure that one out.

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12 Responses to The Dinner

  1. Deb says:

    Coincidently, I just commented about this on another blog the other day, so apologies for the repetition. I read Koch’s SUMMER HOUSE WITH SWIMMING POOL which had both a repellent narrator and an act of parental cluelessness do egregious it bordered on child abuse. I’ve read good things about THE DINNER, but I found SHWSP so off-putting, I don’t think I’ll be reading anymore of Koch’s work.

    • Jenny says:

      As I said, it was very engaging — I read it very quickly. But it wasn’t what I expected. It’s really more like Gone Girl (which I enjoyed!) than anything literary. I think Koch was looking to get on the We Need to Talk About Kevin bandwagon rather than explore the idea of evil/ responsibility in depth.

  2. lailaarch says:

    I pretty much hate-read this book because it was a book group pick, and I try my best to finish those. But I will say it was one of our better discussions! And I came out of our meeting (begrudgingly) with a slightly better view of the book. I agree, Claire is definitely the most interesting character – I wish Koch had done more with her.

    • Jenny says:

      So do I! The book was much more focused on the men, and Claire came in just at the corners. I’d have liked to see more revealed about her.

  3. I had the feeling that this book would have things in common with The Slap, which is also full of unpleasant people doing and saying unpleasant things. Just not my cup of tea, I think.

    • Jenny says:

      I do think that this came at about the same time as The Slap, and also We Need to Talk About Kevin — ideas about parental responsibility, maybe. But yes, also repellent people and repellent actions. It wasn’t quite smart enough or deep enough to be as much fun as Gone Girl, so I don’t think I’d really recommend it.

  4. Michelle says:

    I am sad you didn’t like this one. I really enjoyed it, as much as you can enjoy any novel with such despicable characters. Between this one and his most recent one, Koch has become one of my go-to authors!

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, I don’t mind unlikeable characters at all. I just want them to be interesting, and I feel like Koch made deliberate choices to make his characters less interesting. That’s a disappointment for me.

  5. I prefer this one to Gone Girl, which just went to far into crazy town plot wise for me, but I don’t think either one has anything to say about the nature of good and evil. I didn’t expect that from Koch. I started it not knowing anything about it really, but never expected it to be much more than a good thriller, which I think it was. I don’t think extreme plots tell us anything useful about good and evil. It’s the everyday moments that get at the question as far as I’m concerned.

    • Jenny says:

      I disagree with you about extreme plots not telling us about good and evil. I have a theory that if a novel is written well, confronts interesting problems, and has good characterization, the plot can be anything it likes and it can still tell us about people, even if those people are battling robot squids or whatever. Everyday moments are just easier to see!

  6. Thomas says:

    This book made me a huge fan of Herman Koch and I wish more than just two of his novels were translated. I’m sympathetic to some of your issues with the book but I really loved it. One of the things I liked about it was seeing how seemingly good people can cross the line for the sake of keeping their lives intact. And it scared the heck out of me for that reason. And imagine if you were basically decent and then your kids did something like that. Yikes.

    • Jenny says:

      I agree with you that the book had some interesting things about it, including the questions you mention. I just really wanted Koch to go all the way with those questions instead of chickening out. If you’re going to confront these problems, why give your characters the “out” of having a neurological syndrome of some kind? Why not just have them make the choice to be evil? That’s a more interesting book, to my mind. The question of having your child do something awful is horrifying, though, you’re right!

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