Jul 10

Book Review – The Dinner

The DinnerThe Dinner by Herman Koch

“It was okay” is the phrase which most accurately describes how I feel about this book. It was described as Europe’s answer to GONE GIRL (a book I very much enjoyed). I was wondering how a book that was not an epistolary from the viewpoint of a missing woman could resemble a first person narrative of a sour, judgmental man at a dinner party. The simple answer is that it doesn’t, not really. Both books have twists, and both books have nasty, horrible people in them.
The protagonist, Paul, and his wife Clare, have been invited to have dinner at a fancy restaurant by Paul’s famous politician brother Serge and Serge’s wife Babette. Paul detests/envies his brother at every level. Everything Serge does or has done is contemptable, from buying a house in France to adopting a boy from Africa to eating his tourneado of beef too quickly. Paul loves and admires his wife, and admires and has a better relationship with Babette than he does his brother.

The book gets a little long in points. Paul goes on and on about his personal philosophies, which let the reader know that he’s a violent, unstable, misanthropic man without many redeeming qualities. It does not, however, flesh out the cast of 7 characters to the point at which any of them felt like more than names. Some of them do things, but we don’t know why. There’s no sense of them being real people, complex people, or anything other than plot points. Michel, for example (Clare and Paul’s son) is a pivotal character but I don’t know anything about him except that he is fifteen, has a cell phone, and resembles his father. He does a crime, but there’s no sense of why, how he feels about it, or what his reaction to it really is, if this is in character, if it has some deeper meaning, etc.  Everything is filtered through the unreliable narrator, Paul, whose hatred for pretty much everyone except his family is so intense it overshadows objectivity.

The translator didn’t help the novel either. Some phrases which probably sounded fine in Dutch came off as odd and strange in English. And there was a cultural thing that confused me, in the end when they ask for the check, and Serge has paid for it, except Paul was going to pay for it, and the manager said it was taken care of, but then he comes by and does something that makes it seem like he’s waiting for Paul to pay for it, and Paul says something about tip and gratuity and tax (which I didn’t think they even did in Holland) and none of it really made any sense but that was near the end and by that time I decided I didn’t care enough to worry about it.

Koch is vague to ill effect. (The “mysterious condition” he has should have had a name (of something real, that we could look up) and his wife’s “mysterious illness” is not actually “none of our business.”) Koch adhered too closely to the “dinner party thriller” concept even when it wasn’t working, and he placed too much of the story in the hands of an unlikeable and contemptible narrator. Some of his descriptions are nicely lurid and visceral, and his plot points were workable, but I can only get behind an anti-hero when he’s got something to recommend him, like brilliance or talent or sheer grit. Evil genius is interesting. Evil unemployed loser asshole misanthrope who doesn’t do anything except complain is not interesting, especially when his supporting cast of characters have no personality to counter his. What could have saved it? More action scenes? A second half of the book that directly show (rather than summarizing) the events of that night and the nights after? Viewpoints from Serge, so we get some real conflict? Who knows? I do know that it didn’t quite work.  To use the analogy of the theme of the book, it’s a 400 euro dinner that wasn’t all that enjoyable.
The concept of the novel–a dark and chilling thriller set at a dinner in a fancy restaurant–is an audacious one. If Koch could have carried it off, it would have been stupendous. But he didn’t, and  I’m not sure anyone could. The plot points are solidly interesting, but too many of the crucial events took place outside of the dinner evening. Too many of the characters weren’t fleshed out well enough, and the only one who was just didn’t interest me.

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