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By Herman Koch, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett
Reviewed by Travis Fortney
Paul Lohman and his wife Claire are invited, or perhaps summoned, to join Paul's brother Serge and his wife Babette for dinner at an expensive Amsterdam restaurant. Serge is a famous politician. Paul is resentful of his brother's celebrity, his fake smile, and even the way he eats. The reason they have come together is to discuss "the children." Each couple has a fifteen year old boy, and the kids have been up to no good. Exactly what trouble they've gotten themselves into is an early source of suspense in the book, and I won't spoil it here.
Instead, I'll focus on a brief passage in the "Appertif" (the book's section all take the name of the corresponding course of the meal), in which the couples discuss a Woody Allen film. "That Scarlett Johannsson," says Serge, "I wouldn't kick her out of bed for eating crackers." Which leads to a conversation in which Paul searches for the proper cutting comment to discredit his brother's taste in movies. The passage is important, because it plants the idea of Hollywood cinema in the reader's mind. The Dinner up to that point, has a lot in common with the recent Roman Polanski film Carnage (or more properly with the Yasmina Reza play The God of Carnage, since The Dinner was originally published in the Netherlands in 2009). The two stories share a similar conceit--two couples get together to talk about the kids and everything goes to hell--and at least up to the conversation about Scarlett Johannsson the book seems to be a fast-moving black comedy focused on Paul's funny and (for a time) agreeable observations, as well as laying waste to the pretensions of the Dutch upper class. In other words, the book seems like one that will play by the rules of Hollywood cinema (and American publishing, for that matter), which is to say that we're prepared to watch some messy emotional fireworks, but we expect the entertainment to be gratifying in a way that makes us feel better about ourselves in the end. Koch seems intent on defying these expectations. Shortly after the Scarlett Johannsson conversation, the book gets considerably darker. In fact, the novel reads like Koch saw The God of Carnage and thought the play was timid and weak-kneed, thought that the opportunity to truly explore humanity's dark side had been missed. Still, I loved Carnage and I don't feel entirely comfortable saying I loved or even liked The Dinner.
The Dinner will send you to Google, it will leave you chilled, disgusted and at least somewhat disturbed, and it will leave you with more questions than answers. When you read a phrase like "moral bankruptcy" or "unlikeable characters" in reference to a book, you might think you know what you're going to get, but here Koch manages to surprise by aligning the reader with the narrator and then slowly pulling the curtain back to reveal Paul's true nature. It's very uncomfortable, because by the time Paul becomes genuinely unredeemable in our eyes, we've already determined to like him. So Mr. Koch is toying with our instincts as readers and even our instincts as human beings--when we finally admit that we don't in fact like Paul, what we're really admitting is that we didn't judge him correctly and that our mechanisms for determining a person's character might not be so finely tuned as we had thought. It's been a long time since I laughed so hard during the first hundred pages of a book, and it's been longer than I can remember that a book made me genuinely sick to my stomach by the end. Read at your own risk.
Out of 10: 9