Book review: “The Dinner” by Herman Koch
Special to the Daily
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 such a 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 small vignettes, with the characters emerging slowly, written in a style that is all show with no telling, much like a stage production, one in which the reader builds an impression of the different players as they interact throughout the course of the performance, their scenes unfolding and merging in real time.
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. Such as a spring being wound more tightly, 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 therein, for all of the diners are wearing their own unique masks of propriety, hiding the real person and the real feelings beneath, allowing the societal expectations of public dining to mute any tensions simmering just out of sight.
SERVING UP DRAMA
Koch very handily weaves in some 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, and finding he is unable to do so, he becomes determined not to enjoy himself, a role he is clearly most comfortable taking. 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,” Koch writes.
Clearly, 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.
BURDENS CARRIED THROUGH LIFE
The slightly tepid evening ramps up as the veneer of civility and decorum begins to fragment, as the questions of guilt and innocence, intention and responsibility are argued. The concepts of public versus private life are raised, as is the line between youth and adulthood, that blurry area where the responsibility of the child and the responsibility of the parent overlap.
Koch deftly provokes with his dinnertime snapshot into 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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