by Herman Koch, 2013
One sentence summary: Terrible people being terrible to each other.
Looking at reviews, I see this claimed as the European Gone Girl, which I suppose fits. I was one of the few people who hated Gone Girl, but I had to admit that Gillian Flynn was an excellent writer, for I was riveted throughout the book and, although I hated the characters and the content, only a good writer could elicit such a strong reaction from her audience. Herman Koch is, by comparison, a fair writer. The Dinner is neither as off-putting as Gone Girl, nor is it as gripping. I hated it less – in fact, I didn’t hate it at all – but I also wouldn’t call it well-crafted or perfectly paced and it was only suspenseful in as much as Koch endeavors to hide the specifics of the plot from you by boring you first with minute details of the titular dinner. No, the only reason that this book gets points from me is that I think the idea behind the plot itself is rather good, even if it’s poorly executed.
The premise of the book is that Paul and Claire Lohman meet with Paul’s brother Serge, a rising political figure, and his wife Babette to discuss an incident involving their children. The plot centers around this one dinner, taking us through the aperitif, appetizer, main course, dessert, and digestif, and through all these courses we come to learn what, exactly, their teenaged sons did. I will say that I expected to go through the majority of the book before finally discovering the nature of the event, but I have to give Koch credit that we learn the details about halfway through and the event itself is sufficiently horrifying. You won’t get to it and think, we waited for this? Unfortunately, the waiting that you do through that first half of the book is tedious and filled with minute descriptions of the food they are being served and Paul’s disgust with the waiter using his pinky to point out the meal’s intimate details. Having finished the book I can see that this is supposed to provide some insight into Paul’s character, as the story is narrated from his viewpoint, but that doesn’t change the fact that I was bored for nearly 150 pages.
I won’t spoil what it is the boys did, except to say that I think Koch did a good job of incorporating sociological, psychological, and genetic elements into the narrative. The elite vs. the masses, the haves vs. the have-nots, the bourgeoisie vs. the proletariat – whatever you want to call it, that is the crux of the conflict and while it may seem to be an extreme example of that tension, many of us are witness to this sort of injustice every day. We may even unwittingly contribute to it, if not in our actions, then in our thoughts and in our beliefs.
I’m certain that we’re not supposed to sympathize with any of these characters. As I indicated at the start, they’re all pretty terrible and they all do terrible things. The problem I had with Gone Girl is sort of the problem I have here – it’s difficult to read a book where you root for absolutely no one. But the bigger issue is simply the tedium and the boredom of having to read through numerous unnecessary details until we reach the meat of the, uh, meal. No one likes a dinner that stretches out forever where no one can seem to part, and I don’t like a book that does the same. Koch had an intense, gripping idea that could have made for a thrilling book. It’s unfortunate that it gets lost among the wordy detritus.