Saturday, March 16, 2013

Review: "The Dinner" by Herman Koch

I loved The Dinner by Herman Koch. I picked it up on a whim based solely on its cool premise and promise of eerie suburban dysfunction, and am glad to say that it totally delivered, being what is probably the most fun and interesting book I have read since sometime last year, maybe even going as far back as a few years ago, with the only book that packs as a much of a narrative punch as this maybe being Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin. Each novel deals with similar issues involving kids and the things parents do when their kid goes beyond simple child’s play into truly sociopathic territory, and how in doing what we think is our parental duty, we end up creating a truly horrific and unstoppable monster and unleashing it into an unsuspecting world. Each also has a very unreliable narrator that acts to create different kinds of understanding about the situation as the novel comes to its shocking close. But what sets this book apart from Shriver’s is just how vicious this novel is. In Shriver’s novel, there is at least some levity to the violent proceedings, but in The Dinner, Koch is not interested in any kind of redemption. The narrative unfolds with more and more layers cynicism and misanthropy about the people involved, leading to a shocking finale that left me shaken by its cruelty, yet clear and concise in its painful inevitability. The premise is beyond simple, which only adds to the proceedings. Two couples, the husbands of which are brothers, decide to meet at a local posh restaurant to discuss “important matters”.  One brother, Paul, the narrator of the story, is a retired schoolteacher, while the other, named Serge, is a successful politician. Each of their wives, Claire and Babette, are simply along for the ride that these two estranged brothers are taking. The dinner itself unfolds as any normal dinner would, at least in Europe, with wine being served first, then the appetizer and main course, etc. As the dinner goes on, we find out what really brings these two couples together. Each of their sons has been involved in a horrific crime with staggering implications on each of their parents’ lives. And the question about what to do about will lead to threats against one another and eventual brutality. It all seems very clear-cut, but as we get inside Paul’s head and learn what he really feels about the people around him, and his history of explosive anger, we get a real glimpse at the heel that awaits this family. It is a lot like what Sartre put forth in No Exit, there is no greater punishment for these people than to have to be stuck with each other for the rest of their lives. A surprising book that literally crackles with fire as you read it; there is no need to be scared of this translated book. I don’t think there will more explosive book to come out this year.
Rating: 5/5

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