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.
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