‘The Dinner’: Hold the Humanity

In Herman Koch’s sharp, suspenseful novel, two couples’ comically uncomfortable dinner turns into an examination of a horrendous crime and an autopsy of a morally crippled society.

The Dinner

Publisher: Hogarth
Length: 304 pages
Author: Herman Koch
Price: $24
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2013-02

It begins with blank effect, as though listening to your none-too-interesting friend relate a perfectly ordinary evening filled with ordinary grievances. The narrator, Paul, grouses about this and that, with a chipper flatness that suggests one of those quiet, empty books about ennui and social conventions. Before it’s all over, though, Herman Koch’s serenely malicious little mousetrap of a novel, The Dinner, will have revealed some deadly shadows behind the bright-mannered griping of its opening pages.

Koch’s narrator, Paul, is a retired history teacher who doesn’t have a lot to fill his days with but nevertheless has a lot on his mind. When the novel starts, he is heading with his wife Claire to have dinner with his brother Serge, a celebrity politician, and his wife Babette. Paul isn’t looking forward to the evening, and spends much of the first pages listing his objections about what is to come. He’s not sure what to wear. The restaurant is going to be highly expensive and the food too precious and meager, Serge will show off some annoying wine arcana and the fact that he’s friends with the owner. He will also find a reason to brag about his having adopted a boy from Burkina Faso.

While most of Paul’s predictions turn out to be entirely accurate (Serge actually is a selfish blowhard with zero self-awareness, and the restaurant’s stiff pretension is off the charts), there remains the sense that he’s simply (all protestations to the contrary) not someone who’s good with people:

"I didn’t feel like going to the restaurant. I never do. A fixed appointment for the immediate future is the gates of hell; the actual evening is hell itself."

There are some very shy people in the world who might consider the describing of an evening out as “hell itself” falling into the category of hyperbole. But at first, this manner of complaint comes off as just Paul’s unremarkable and uncensored id. That’s before Koch starts turning the screws, and begins revealing the true purpose behind the dinner. Before long, what seemed at first like a lack of style with Paul’s narration acquires a purposefully icy drip.

Already a worldwide bestseller, Koch’s book was first published in his native Netherlands in 2009. While much of its concerns are highly universal (thusly it being published in 25 countries), there is also a specificity to his setting that stiffens the disarmingly light social comedy that characterizes much of the book’s first chapters.

Though Paul and Claire are clearly not as wealthy as Serge and Babette, they are nevertheless in that class of well-off Euro bourgeoisie who would fit in just as well in Amsterdam as they would in London, Berlin, or Manhattan. They may not spend a fortune on fine dining, but their idea of comfort food is still wine and a cheese course, not fast food. The dinner conversation is educated and ironic, with talk about “the new Woody Allen” and the racist subtext of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Via Paul’s internal fulminations, Koch also layers in some jabs at wealthy Dutch who try to separate themselves from their famously meat-and-potatoes countrymen by swooning over anything French, to the point of buying up old homes in the country to exult in their discerning taste. (While most Americans will have little ability to fact-check Koch on this, the symptom seems universal enough that his accuracy can be assumed.)

But still, between Serge’s sexist bloviations and the excruciating prissy presentation of food -- Koch gets a lot of comic mileage out of the manager’s pinky as it hovers over each nearly-empty plate of food he is describing with orgasmic epicurean comprehensiveness -- Paul is gritting his teeth so hard they could practically splinter. Because this isn’t just a dinner with brothers and their wives. Serge tells Paul early in the dinner, “We need to talk about our children.” After that, the chasm beneath Paul’s feet creaks open wider and wider with each passing page.

Saying too much about what Koch has in store would ruin some of The Dinner’s nasty, embittered surprises. But suffice it to say that prior to the dinner, Paul had discovered something on his teenage son’s phone involving him and Serge’s teen boys that threatens all of them. Although Paul calls that discovery a “turning point as in before the war or after the war,” his protestations of shock feel hollow. It doesn’t seem possible that in this family the apple has fallen that far from the tree.

While it definitely trades in the slow reveals and clue-spotting of the thriller, Koch’s book is operating on a different level. The deepest shocks that it reveals are actually not in what Paul has discovered on his son’s phone, but in the adults’ reactions to it. Just as Paul’s sublimely cranky rantings start acquiring darker and danker sensations, Koch’s target zone spirals out wider from just dry mockery of the Western upper-class’s pretensions and the political correctness that barely veils their true impulses.

It all snaps together at the end with a morbidly satisfying completeness that makes full use of Koch’s clipped, comic voice. If there’s a criticism to be made of Koch’s novel (his first to be translated into English, but almost definitely not the last) it would be that he allows the thriller impulse to take over too much of a narrative that actually had some things to say. It’s as though after letting the demons out of the bottle, he wasn’t sure how to put them back in and, alas, didn’t try that hard to do so.

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