Friday, May 31, 2013

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: The Dinner

Note: I am double-posting this review here and at Words Incorporated

For the inaugural Cephalopod Coffeehouse, I have chosen to review a book that's making pretty big waves in Europe, but hasn't quite reached the same level of buzz here in the States: The Dinner, by Dutch author Herman Koch. I'm always interested in reading books written in languages other than English, but usually they have to become megabestsellers before someone will translate them. And so it is with The Dinner. Written while George W. Bush was still president (he is referenced several times in the narrative), the book wasn't translated into English until 2012, and it's only recently been reviewed by major newspapers here.

"A European Gone Girl." —The Wall Street Journal

"An internationally bestselling phenomenon: the darkly suspenseful,
highly controversial tale of two families struggling to make the
hardest decision of their lives — all over the course of one meal."

The premise: two brothers and their wives sit down to a fancy dinner in Amsterdam in order to discuss a rather serious problem that has arisen with their respective sons. The nature of the problem is revealed fairly early on, but details are added as the novel progresses. And it's pretty grim. The novel's comparison to Gone Girl is not inaccurate: they are both compulsively-readable novels with unreliable narrators, a cast of appalling characters, and head-spinning plot twists.

In case you're wondering how a novel could take place just over the course of one dinner: it doesn't. While it's structured (rather cleverly) around the titular dinner, with each course representing a new development in the family saga, the action ranges far beyond the restaurant: we travel back in time with the narrator, Paul, who fills in the family history via recalled anecdotes. Of course, all these recollections are filtered through the black veil of his mind: you can trust what you're told only after you learn to interpret Paul's reality.

Paul Lohman. Humbert Humbert. Amy Elliot Dunne. It must be so much fun to write characters like these: twisted people who justify their unjustifiable actions to the reader. Characters who, as awful as they are, retain a certain charm. Who dare us to empathize with them, just a little bit. When you see the lengths these characters go to to exculpate themselves, you start to wonder about your own mind: do we all have a little Paul Lohman in us?

Paul starts off the novel as merely curmudgeonly, and invites the reader to sympathize with him as he mocks the pretentiousness of the restaurant and rails against his brother's slick political persona. Some reviewers who initially liked Paul found themselves unsettled when Paul goes from justifiably grumpy to pretty much unhinged. Maybe because I'd already been through that with Amy Elliot Dunne in Gone Girl, I wasn't so troubled by Paul's ever-worsening character. What bothered me more was Koch's decision to [slight spoiler alert] make Paul's personality into a neurological condition: somehow, locating the problem in the brain makes the story less urgent.

But this twist does bring up the problem of evil, free will, and heritability. Is the bad son that way because he made bad decisions of his own free will? Or was he a blank slate his dad trained into evilness? Or was he always going to be evil, due to the Evil Gene his father apparently has? The involvement of two cousins — one related, one adopted — further touches on the what-makes-men-wicked question. It's not explored directly, but Koch lets it hang there, ready for book-club discussion.

As interesting as these Bad Boys are, the truly interesting character (for me) ended up being Paul's wife, Claire. We have strong indications about why Paul and his son are the way they are, but what makes Claire a willing participant in the unfolding insanity? Because the premise is only the start of it: the two families have to decide what to do about their sons, now that the misdeed has surfaced. The brothers are set up to have conflicting solutions, but it's the wives who surprise us.

Koch makes a number of references to Tolstoy's famous line about families: "happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." I wasn't really sure why he kept referencing this line at first, except to show how doggedly Paul was forcing his own family into that mold, in spite of all the awfulness that was being uncovered. But now I'm wondering if Koch wrote the book to overturn Tolstoy's maxim. Perhaps he wanted to show that happy families (and you could argue that the Lohmans are, in fact, a happy family) are not all alike. That happy families can have as many skeletons-in-closets and as much drama as the unhappy ones.

Visit the other Coffeehouses to read more reviews!

1.The Armchair Squid2.Cygnus
3.Scouring Monk4.My Creatively Random Life
5.Words Incorporated6.StrangePegs
7.Subliminal Coffee8.Ed&Reub
9.Back Porchervations10.WearingLemon
11.more...MILLVALLISON12.The Bird's Nest
13.Trisha @ WORD STUFF14.Writer's Block
15.Choice City Native16.Counterintuitivity
17.What's Up, MOCK?18.What It Is Like To Be A Frog (You Think?)
19.The Random Book Review


  1. What an awesome review! This is a book I've GOT to read!

    1. Thank you! I hope you do read it: please come back and tell me what you think!

  2. This immediately makes me think of the French film "Le dîner de cons", which was then remade into the awful Hollywood version, "Dinner for Schmucks". I know "The Dinner" isn't a comedy, but it takes the same premise of a dinner party in one night and all these things come out and happen with odd twists and turns. If you've never seen the French film, I highly recommend it. And, I like this book, so now I want to read it!

    Do all the references to Bush make the novel feel dated? I've often run into that with translated contemporary novels.

    1. I will keep my eyes peeled for that French film. The Bush references DO make the novel feel dated, and were jarring at first, since the book is being treated as The New Hot Thing by the American press. Mary Mary, there are some scenes in France, which you might enjoy: I learned that the French apparently think of the Dutch the way everyone else in the world thinks of the Americans: as rich, loud, rude, and imperious. I've even been to both countries and never picked up on that attitude, so that was interesting.

  3. I loved that book, it was a great surprise to find it in spanish (many times I end up reading books in english or other languages because they don't get translated). The way it all happens in a dinner, and in one night is actually brilliant. I've nothing but praise for this book. The ending is awesome and very unexpected ;) You've made such a great review, I just felt like re-reading it. :)

    I read it last year and also made a review for the newspaper I work in -in Spanish, sorry( )

    1. I understand the book has been a hit across Europe for a while, so that may explain the Spanish translation. I will check out the review you wrote; my Spanish is rusty but I'll give it a try. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Sister Steph, I agree with Kittie that this is an awesome review and I'm definitely going to look for the book. (I'm in desperate search of a good summer read!)

    "It must be so much fun to write characters like these: twisted people who justify their unjustifiable actions to the reader. Characters who, as awful as they are, retain a certain charm. Who dare us to empathize with them, just a little bit."

    "The involvement of two cousins — one related, one adopted — further touches on the what-makes-men-wicked question."

    These two comments make me think of "Breaking Bad" (I'm currently watching Season 4 -- anyone else watching?) and how the protagonist goes through an incredible transformation throughout the series (and other characters around him as well). What I find interesting is that each character has his/her own moral code and limits for the bad things they do (Jessie, for example, has limits that Walt doesn't. But then there's characters like Mike who have no limits, apparently). So the series poses several interesting questions: what makes someone evil, is everyone predisposed to evilness in desperate situations, does power corrupt all, and what are each person's limits? It seems like "The Dinner" works in a similar way.

    1. I only watched one episode of Breaking Bad: it was too grim for us at the time, but I want to revisit it. (Although I hear it just gets darker and darker as it goes.) Anyway, the more we learn about how disorders like psychopathy work, the more popular these sorts of stories seem to become. Social science has learned SO much about morality just in the last decade, I expect that's feeding the surge in stories about free will, evil, morality, etc. It's a lot more complicated than we thought it was, back when we were taught morality was all about conscious choices.

  5. Well, I finally read this book. Perhaps the thing that drew me the most to the novel was the format. When you said the entire novel took place in one dinner, I knew I had to read it. That, and the *awful secret* about the teenagers, which I was curious about.

    Here are some of my thoughts on the novel:

    1. I loved the format and design of the story. I think it's brilliant to start with the climactic scene (if you consider the entire dinner as the climax/decision point of the story). Of course, the juicy part takes place during dessert, but that was to be expected.

    2. I love the author's voice and insights (although I didn't always agree with him). Can't say that I liked the narrator, but he had me fooled until we learn (SPOILER ALERT) that he actually did know his son's secret (what a disappointment that was!) I thought it was interesting how in the beginning we see through Paul's eyes and believe in him, but by the end of the novel, the only character I didn't hate was Serge (yet I couldn't stand him at the beginning!).

    3. It bothered me that they never said what Paul's condition was. Plus, I didn't believe they could diagnose a psychological condition through the amniotic fluid. Didn't you think that was weird? And what about all that secrecy toward the reader? Why couldn't we learn the name of Claire's disease either? Did the author not want to research the names or what?

    4. Some things were unbelievable to me. (SPOILER) Paul goes around beating people up (his brother, the school principal) yet nothing ever happens to him? There are no consequences?

    5. This novel proves that characters don't necessarily have to be likable for a reader to like a book. However, I think the unsympathetic characters were compensated by the writing style (which I liked) and the book's "big question" (what is going to happen with these kids?)


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