The Dinner by Herman Koch was the June selection for the AMBC (Awesome Members Book Club) and it was an amazing choice that sparked a terrific conversation. This novel was originally published in 2009 in the Netherlands, and the translation was released in February in the United States. Many reviews compare this novel to Gone Girl, and while it does have some similarities to the thriller by Gillian Flynn, Koch’s novel is much more subversive and satirical.
The Dinner is the story of a dinner, two couples at a fancy restaurant meeting to talk about their teenaged sons. The husbands of the couples are brothers with a long history of mistrust and resentment, and their sons have committed an atrocity that needs addressing.
Koch plots the book through the courses of the meal, from aperitif to appetizer, all the way through to after dinner espresso. The narrator, Paul, tells the story, piece by piece, revealing the disturbing and horrific details through flashbacks. Paul’s opening affability and talk of “happy families” deepens into something darker. The seeming ignorance of the wives is skewered. Serge’s popularity tries Paul’s impatience. Each flashback exposes another layer, and the reader understands that Paul is not the most reliable of narrators.
The contrast between the painstaking descriptions of artistically prepared, artisan sourced food with the brutality and morally reprehensible actions of the characters takes the novel to a level of satire that I have not experienced in a very long time. Paul takes a perverse delight in asking the restaurant manager the provenance of the grapes garnishing his plate. The manager describes the grapes to a level of ridiculous detail but is unaware of Paul’s scorn. Similarly, Paul describes his own episodes of violence to the reader, evoking a response of horror and disgust from the reader that Paul would not understand.
As I read the novel, my opinions of the characters evolved to such a degree that by the end, the “bad” characters were the only ones with any redeeming qualities.
Koch satirizes many of the aspects of post modern life – the ridiculous obsession with food, the culture of celebrity, reality tv and YouTube sensations. And underneath it all lie the age old questions of nature vs. nurture and how far parents will go to protect their children. Moral bankruptcy is the final item on the bill at the end of The Dinner.
This is a fast read that will draw the reader in quickly, almost too quickly – but I think that’s Koch’s intent. He draws you into a satirical black comedy, and then suddenly the reader realizes they are in the middle of a psychological thriller. This is a fantastic read, and I highly recommend it. If you enjoy a good story, it’s here. If you want deeper questions about morality and responsibility, they’re here too. Have fun!