Tuesday, May 28, 2013

"The Dinner" by Herman Koch

The Dinner reminds me a lot of Gone Girl in its deliciously unreliable narrator, increasing tension, and building mystery. And though, like Gone Girl, The Dinner gets ever more extreme as the book continues, I didn't find it nearly as outlandish, though the characters aren't much less grotesque.

Perhaps what makes The Dinner all the more affecting is its mundane set-up: Paul and his wife Claire are meeting Paul's brother, Serge, and his wife, Babette, for dinner at a fancy restaurant. But, of course, this isn't an ordinary dinner. They are there to talk about their 15-year-old sons and a grainy video that's been on the news recently. The parents recognize their sons in the video, though it seems no one else has yet, and they need to decide what to do.

It becomes clear from the start that Paul is a man with an ax to grind. His brother is running for prime minister of Holland and is expected to win, and Paul resents Serge's celebrity. Though he tries hard to make Serge appear to be a patronizing phony, it's obvious that Paul is the bully, looking for opportunities to put down all of those around him.

Over the course of the novel, Paul reveals his past and his relationships with his son and wife. Not surprisingly, he takes no responsibility for his failures, which instead only fuel his rage at the world. One problem I had with his character echoes a similar issue I had with Gone Girl. At one point, Paul visits a psychologist who informs him that he has some unnamed disorder which makes him act the way he does; according to the psychologist, if prenatal testing had been available when his mother was pregnant, she likely would have aborted him because of the disorder. To me, this is a cheap excuse for Paul's behavior--now he's medically crazy rather than a real person gone wrong.

There's some interesting commentary on parents' relationships with their children and the lengths they'll go to to protect and excuse them, though Paul and Claire's behavior does, in my opinion, go somewhat too far for belief at the end.

Though the characters do become almost cartoonishly evil by the end, I still found The Dinner hard to put down and engrossing. It's a good summer read, especially if you like the style of Gone Girl.

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