REVIEW: The Dinner by Herman Koch

The DinnerRating: 5 out of 5 stars, Genre: General Fiction, Pages: 292, Level: Intermediate

Book Description:

A summer’s evening in Amsterdam and two couples meet at a fashionable restaurant. Between mouthfuls of food and over the delicate scraping of cutlery, the conversation remains a gentle hum of politeness- the banality of work, the triviality of holidays. But the empty words hide a terrible conflict and, with every forced smile and every new course, the knives are being sharpened… Each couple has a fifteen-year-old son. Together, the boys have committed a horrifying act, caught on camera, and their grainy images have been beamed into living rooms across the nation; despite a police manhunt, the boys remain unidentified- by everyone except their parents. As the dinner reaches its culinary climax, the conversation finally touches on their children and, as civility and friendship disintegrate, each couple shows just how far they are prepared to go to protect those they love.

Introduction

You can dress up chicken any way you want, but it’s still chicken.

Is that the point of this story?

Holy smokes this was a phenomenal book. If I’d had uninterrupted time, I would have finished it in one sitting. One morning, I woke up at 2:30 AM and made the mistake of thinking about the book. I finally gave up trying to stop thinking about it and got up at 4:00 AM to continue reading.

I was so close to the end when I had to pick up my son from school. I am usually fairly sociable, but as I waited outside with the other parents, my nose was in the book and I was ignoring all the conversations around me. I did not care that I looked like a complete and total nerd. I was in book Nirvana.

When I finished the book, I felt like I had just drank ten cups of coffee, one right after the other. I wanted to talk about the book but no one was answering the phone. I was driving myself crazy holding it all in and obsessing over it. My heart rate had sky rocketed. I was close to inventing an imaginary friend so I would have someone with whom to discuss the book.

When I finally settled down enough to begin writing this review, I couldn’t type fast enough to get all my thoughts down. I would be in the middle of typing out some hasty notes so I wouldn’t forget what I wanted to say and then quickly try to get to the next topic I wanted to discuss, only to discover I wasn’t fast enough and the thought was lost. Hopefully not for long.

At this point, many of you will likely be confused. Here I am gushing, explaining how insanely I love this book, indeed it will knock something off my top ten list, but then you see the ratings- Amazon 3.4, Barnes & Noble 3.09 and Goodreads 3.23. What gives?

I don’t know. I purposely did not read any reviews prior to beginning The Dinner. I knew there was a big secret so I didn’t want to ruin the surprise. For me, the biggest whopper happened 16 sentences before the end of the book and let me tell you, I was not disappointed when I got there; it was that phenomenal. But I was absolutely stunned at the bad reviews and low overall rating. The Dinner is an intelligent, genius story, in my humble opinion. The low ratings across the board just did not reconcile with my experience.

Reviewers can debate points back and forth all day long but it may come down to nothing more than personal taste. You’ll just have to read my review and decide whether or not you’re going to give The Dinner a chance. It’s only 292 pages long. Other than a little bit of time, what do you really have to lose?

Review

The story is told from one point of view. The narrator’s name is Paul. He and his wife meet another couple at an extremely upscale restaurant to discuss an atrocious crime committed by their sons.

Throughout the course, and courses, of the dinner, many issues are addressed and the reader is presented with flashbacks. So while the dinner is obviously one sequential timeline, the chapters are not. In addition, the dinner is constantly interrupted.

Now I consider myself to be an intelligent, well-educated, decently-read individual. However, I wish I had kept this in mind from the very beginning:

It’s like a pistol in a stage play: when someone waves a pistol during the first act, you can bet your bottom dollar that someone will be shot with it before the curtain falls. That’s the law of drama. The law that says no pistol must appear if no one’s going to fire it. p45

I was so wrapped up in the story, I didn’t pay as much attention to little details as I should have. While it was a lot of fun to get to that last page and have almost everything suddenly tie in together, I also wanted to kick myself for missing many of the obvious clues. Well, obvious in retrospect that is. 16 pages from the end of the book, I was bombarded with all these flashbacks of scenes in the book, coming at me and tying in together so fast… I wish I could have recorded those few seconds of thoughts.

It’s good stuff.

The Dinner is one of those books that will keep you thinking. Long after you have finished, you will think about it and put another piece of the puzzle in place, rushing back to the book to look up the exact wording of a quote to make sure it supports your theory or to search for a clue you are certain you missed.

I don’t want to include too much in this section because I don’t want to ruin any surprises. And I’ll be honest; this book is not for everybody. Originally I recommended it to my mom. When I got to the end, I called her and said, “Nevermind.” As I have said in other reviews, this is not an issue of intelligence; it is an issue of taste. So here are a few warnings:

If you have to be able to like or sympathize with at least one character to enjoy a book, this book is not for you.

If side stories have to have a definitive ending, this book is not for you.

If you hate jumping back and forth in time, this book is not for you.

If you have to have a reliable narrator, this book is not for you.

I don’t want to discourage you, but I did want to point out some things that others criticized. If any of those are deal breakers, you can save yourself time and money. If they are not, I encourage you to give The Dinner a try.

This ends my spoiler free review. Please do not continue if you don’t want to read any spoilers.






EXPLANATION (IN MY OPINION, OF COURSE)

THIS SECTION CONTAINS SPOILERS!

The Dinner is a story about a family of sociopaths. You don’t find this out definitively until sixteen sentences before the end of the book.

First Paul.

The scene with the psychologist never specifies that Paul is a sociopath, but remember that Paul is an unreliable narrator and flat out refuses to divulge certain details, i.e. why his wife was in the hospital, the names of restaurants, etc. But based on Paul’s views about victims, his reaction to Michel’s video, attacking people, we can safely assume the psychologist recognized the Sociopathic Personality Disorder.

Sociopaths are usually defined as people displaying anti-social behavior which is mainly characterized by lack of empathy towards others that is coupled with display of abnormal moral conduct and inability to conform with the norms of the society. People suffering from antisocial personality disorder are often referred to as sociopaths. Some of the other characteristics that sociopaths may display are stealing, lying, lack of remorse for others and towards living beings, irresponsible behavior, impulsive behavior, drug or alcohol abuse, problems with the law, violating rights of others, aggressive behavior and much more.

http://depressiond.org/sociopath-sociopathic-personality-disorder/

What gives us the indisputable evidence is at the very end of the book when Michel comes back from ‘dealing’ with Beau:

“Dad!”
“What? What is it?”
“Now you’re doing it again!”
“What?”
“You’re laughing! You did that then, too, the first time I told you about the cash machine. You remember? Up in my room? When I told you about the desk lamp, you started laughing, and when I got to the gas can, you were still laughing.”
He looked at me. I looked back. I looked into my son’s eyes.
“And now you’re laughing again,” he said. “You want me to go on? Are you sure you want to hear everything?”
I didn’t say anything. I just looked.
Then Michel took a step forward. He threw his arms around me and hugged.
“Dear old Dad,” he said.

Paul knew. And he thought it was funny.

Now Michel.

Michel is an obvious case. Once you consider the incident with the homeless woman, his continued actions of beating homeless people and recording it, and then his final solution with Beau, we don’t really need anything more to convince us that Michel is a sociopath.

Finally, Claire.

Of all the characters, I find Claire to be the scariest. She is extremely intelligent, can control herself very well and is calculating. The evidence for the case that Claire is a sociopath does not really come until later in the book but the smoking gun is when Paul discovers the amniocentesis results. Before that, we can say she panics and does what she has to do to protect her son. When she tells Paul she prefers and fell in love with the Paul who is not on the medication, we can chalk that up to Claire preferring a husband that is not in a sort of haze of medication.

However, once we see the results of the amniocentesis, we now know Claire knew from the beginning that something was likely wrong with Michel and she decided to continue with the pregnancy anyway. Why? Because she wanted a son who was exactly like her husband. The fact that she made this decision without informing Paul displays her violation of the rights of others, as highlighted in the definition above. The fact that she didn’t hide or destroy the results displays the fact that she doesn’t care if Paul finds out. She knew what she wanted. She didn’t care what anybody else wanted. She did what she had to do to get what she wanted. This all equals sociopath.

It turns out Clare was the true monster of this story.

Regarding paternity.

I was surprised at how many people suggested that there was evidence Michel was Serge’s son because of the box that was checked on the amniocentesis results. Paul made a big deal out of the fact that the box was checked that designated the decision to continue the pregnancy was the ‘parents’ decision even though he knew nothing about the test.

Others have suggested that means Paul was not the father. I disagree.

I don’t think that had anything to do with it. I think Paul was fixating on the word ‘parents’ because he had nothing to do with the decision. Keep in mind that Paul fixates on random things- the waiter placing his finger so close to the food, Serge sitting on Claire’s chair, the man’s beard, etc. This is another symptom of his disorder, whether that be his sociopathic disorder or the possibility that he also has Asperger’s.

Just a note on the Asperger’s- The psychologist brought up a disorder with a German sounding name. I thought that might be an important detail. In interviews, Koch commented that he was thinking along the lines of Asperger’s but left vague any details of specific disorders from which Paul suffered.

Back to the paternity:

After he was born, everyone, including Claire’s parents and other members of her immediate family, said that Michel was the spitting image of me. “A copy!” the visitors to the recovery room cried out as soon as Michel was lifted from his cot.
Claire had to laugh about it too. The resemblance was too strong to deny.

I am confident there is no evidence to contradict that Paul is indeed Michel’s father.

Criticisms

All of a sudden Claire is this cold, calculating woman who attacks Serge.

Claire never was a sweet wife. She was a sociopath the whole time, even before she met Paul; she recognized what Paul was from the very beginning. That is why she married him; it takes one to know one. Even Paul points out that she is smarter than he is. When she was pregnant, she was counting on Michel being like Paul. She knew what the boys had done the night they did it and advised them on what to do. Then she advised her son what to do when Beau blackmailed them. So Claire’s action in the absence of Paul’s, regarding Serge, was not ‘all of a sudden.’

Why wasn’t Paul prosecuted after attacking the principal? It’s a plot hole.

Paul is an unreliable narrator. Leaving stories unfinished, omitting details, misremembering details… they are all part of his disorder. Remember when he was thinking and his wife came in later and told him he had been sitting on the coach for an hour and a half? After the incident with the principal, maybe he was on probation. Maybe he went to jail for a few months. Maybe he knew something about the principal and blackmailed him with it. We don’t know what happened afterward because Paul doesn’t finish the story. From his point of view, that was unimportant, so he didn’t tell us.

In a strange, narratively conservative turn, we will come to believe that everything that has occurred can be explained neurologically. This takes away the characters’ agency- they are merely acting out their prescribed fates- and in so doing, renders them significantly less interesting.

Rather, he has created a clever, dark confection, like some elegant dessert fashioned out of entrails. “The Dinner,” absorbing and highly readable, proves in the end strangely shallow, and this may be the most unsettling thing about it.

Claire Messud, Nasty Bits, The Dinner by Herman Koch, The New York Times, March 8, 2013

It never ceases to amaze me that two people can read the exact same book and walk away with completely opposite verdicts. And please remember that the following comments are my opinion and I respect any views to the contrary.

First, not everything can be explained neurologically. Paul chose not to attack the principal who suspended him. Paul chose not to attack the waiter for placing his finger too close to the food. Paul chose not to kill or attack the waiter when he revealed he had seen Paul outside with Michel. These incidents occurred when Paul was off his medication, which proves that he is not completely helpless in the face of his neurological disorder.

We all have predispositions to something. That doesn’t mean we are helpless and most of the time that doesn’t mean we cannot control our behavior. While this may be a more effective argument for Michel because he is young and hasn’t had as much time to learn to resist his urges and control his behavior, it is not a good argument for Paul and Claire.

Second, I strongly disagree that The Dinner is ultimately shallow. Paul is a sociopath who cannot remember things clearly, has some sort of feeling towards his wife and son, even brother, knows the kind of father he should be. Claire obviously had some sort of desire since she chose Paul to be with, prefers him off his medication, constantly checked up on him when she thought something may be wrong, loves her son to the point that she will do anything to protect him and yet is a sociopath herself. Michel hugs his father in the end. He is a sociopath and is still capable of feeling something for his parents. He calls his mother mama.

I could go on and on with quotes and examples of how these characters, including Serge and Babette, are anything but shallow. I could list my reasons as to why the story is anything but shallow. However, that will accomplish little because again, I believe it is a matter of taste and certainly opinion.

In the end, to each his own. Personally I found The Dinner to be an ingenious story. It had me guessing right up to the end and left me wanting to discuss every little detail.

If you decide to take a chance on it, I sure hope you like it.

Reviewed by Christina
April 6, 2014

2 thoughts on “REVIEW: The Dinner by Herman Koch

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