The Dinner, Herman Koch’s internationally popular novel, is an extended stunt. Koch confines his story to one fraught restaurant meal, where malice, cruelty, craziness, and a deeply European malaise are very much on the menu. The four diners can leave the table occasionally, headed to the restrooms or the garden or the handy room of flashback memories. But mostly they sit and seethe at one another as a miserable night unfolds.
This book has been widely described as both thriller and chiller, but it really is neither. Nor is it much of a cultural parable, although that seems to be part of Koch’s intent. The narrator, Paul Lohman, offers readers a full list of reasons his brother, Serge, disgusts him, and Serge conveniently makes himself repellent as the dinner proceeds. Paul’s wife, Claire, and Serge’s wife, Babette, eye their husbands weepily and warily until the decibel level rises and it becomes clear that no member of this fighting foursome is really sane.
The premise: This meeting is important to Serge’s political career. He will be a candidate for prime minister of the Netherlands, but there is some family business to dispense with first. So he invites Paul and Claire to an expensive and elite restaurant, where Paul does his best to disparage the grandiose surroundings. With typical boorishness he describes the decor as “Art deco, or some other style that happened to be just in or just out of fashion at the moment.” For reasons of both discretion and spite he refuses to disclose exactly where the place is.
Paul and Claire arrive first. This gives Paul a chance to show off his nutty tics right from the get-go. He panics when he sees olives on the table, wondering how they got there. When the manager says that the olives have been “polished off” with rosemary, Paul asks whether that phrase could mean “getting rid of them” or “blowing them away.” This serves as foreshadowing in a book executed with a joylessly heavy hand.
When Serge and Babette show up, Paul segues into cataloging his brother’s crudeness. Serge may be a popular politician, but he’s a lip-smacking oenophile with greedy appetites. Meanwhile, red-eyed Babette is described, in one of the book’s rare intriguing lines, as looking “like a room where someone has thrown out all the flowers while you were gone: a change in the interior you don’t even notice at first, not until you see the stems sticking out of the garbage.”
So something awful is haunting the Lohmans. Now please (spoiler alert) can we cut to the chase? Midway through the book it is revealed that each couple has a 15-year-old son. Those sons, in their boys-will-be-boys way, came across a bad-smelling homeless woman sleeping in an ATM cubicle. With the playful spirit that runs in this family, they called the woman names, beat her with a lamp, and finally set fire to a gas can. How could they have known that gas fumes would explode and kill her?
Two immediate questions arise: How did the boys get this way? And what are their parents going to do about it? Each query is a fertile source of ghoulishness.
Koch sets forth a personal history for Paul that is full of dangerous flashes of violence and indicates that Michel, his and Claire’s son, is an apple fallen right off the paternal family tree. Paul was a history teacher who once tried to tell students that many World War II victims deserved to die. Michel once wrote a history paper taking a “throw them out the window” stance on capital punishment.
Serge and Babette’s son, Rick, is pure Lohman too. They also have an African-born adopted son who has been an asset to Serge’s political career but may be a menace otherwise. Paul’s tender view of adopted children is that they ought to be treated like creatures rescued from animal shelters. If one behaves badly, it should be disposed of.
As The Dinner moves through its courses, from aperitif to digestif, the reader may be propelled by sheer voyeurism about the Lohmans’ capacity for ugliness. Here is Paul contemptuously describing the Dutch dining experience: “Dark-brown green beans that tasted of licorice, stewed meat stuck together with rubbery nerves and chunks of cartilage, a cheese sandwich with stale bread and green spots on the cheese — without a word, the Dutch diner grinds it all to a pulp between his teeth and swallows it down. And when the waiter comes by to ask if they are enjoying their meal, they run their tongues over the fibers and mold stuck between their teeth and nod.”
But it’s the morality of the story that’s really sickening. As one of the Lohman parents comments about a son: “We don’t want to talk him into a guilt complex. I mean, in some way he is guilty of something, but that isn’t to say that a homeless person who lies down in the way in an ATM cubicle should suddenly become innocence itself.”
The Dinner has been wishfully compared to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (and enthusiastically endorsed by Flynn) for its blackhearted deviltry. But her book, with its dueling narrators, had two vicious but sympathetic voices. Her sneaky spouses were delectable in their evil genius. The Lohmans are indigestible.
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