Book review: ‘The Dinner’ by Herman Koch
April 30, 2017
In this age of self-indulgence and narcissism, sometimes a piece of writing comes along that speaks directly to our convoluted contemporary norms and values, laying bare the gritty and caustic ugliness that can pervade families in this high stakes, competitive world. Herman Koch's "The Dinner" is one such book, a brassy novel that explores the limits of human cruelty and deception, all served up as a five-course dinner fiasco.
The story unfolds in vignettes, with the characters slowly emerging, written in a style that is all show and no tell, much like a stage production.
From the beginning, it is clear that something ominous looms, and reading it is a bit like the putting together of a puzzle without having had a glimpse of the finished image. Like a spring being tightly wound, an undefined tension mounts with each vague page. From the beginning, the reader is handed the notion that dinner in a fashionable restaurant lends a layer of insincerity to any encounter, and all the diners are wearing their own unique masks of propriety, hiding the real person and the real feelings beneath.
Koch handily weaves in details of the meal itself, which serves as a character in its own right, and the drama becomes more pressing as each course is delivered personally by the very stereotypical restaurant manager, whose pompous self-importance plays comic relief to the rising tensions at the table.
"The Dinner" revolves around the complicated relationship between two brothers, the narrator, Paul and his famous political brother, Serge. As soon as they arrive with their wives, Paul's mind begins to concoct ways to escape the evening. Unable to do so, he is determined not to enjoy himself. For Paul, the dinner is a symptom of all that is wrong with his relationship with his brother. "A fixed appointment for the immediate future is the gates of hell; the actual evening is hell itself."
Paul has spent his whole life competing with his brother and, in his mind, at least, he has never quite measured up. In building the story of their relationship, Koch explores the nuances of privilege, sincerity and loyalty, with the brothers at opposing ends of the spectrum. This background frames the dinner that serves as the canvas upon which the two men and their wives deliberate the proper reaction to potentially criminal activities perpetrated by their two teenage sons.
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The mildly tepid evening ramps up as the veneer of civility and decorum begins to fragment, as questions of guilt and innocence, intention and responsibility are argued. The concepts of public vs private life are raised, as is the line between youth and adulthood — that blurry area where the responsibilities of the child and of the parent overlap.
With his dinnertime snapshot, Koch deftly provokes those murky spaces that exist between people. He touches on the burdens that are carried through life, both those that are shared and those that must be carried alone, and how choices can divide and define someone. Koch's surreal study of callous people evokes the quirky madness of David Lynch, all set around a dinner table.
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