Saturday, March 9, 2013

Book Review: The Dinner by Herman Koch

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When we meet a person for the first time, we are like new born babies.  We know nothing of that person's world.  Where did they grow up, go to school, work, marriage, kids, we know none of this.  When that person tells us things, we have to take their word that they are speaking the truth.  As we get to know that person, we begin to realize that that person is either straight forward and has been telling us the truth or is a b*ll sh*t artist out to take advantage of us or to somehow raise their self worth in our eyes.  I dated a guy once, he was from NYC, who told me that on the weekends he was a ski instructor.  That's easy to believe.  But then he told me (you might remember this, that on the Wide World of Sports, when they were showing downhill skiing,they used to show a guy having a horrible crash) that guy was him.  Now that was easy to verify.  Not him.  Too bad.  He was a good looking guy and fun but unreliable when telling me anything.  And that's what we have in Herman Koch's new book The Dinner.  A totally unreliable narrator. The Dinner is a big hit in Europe having sold over 1 million copies and now has made its debut here in the states. Following on the heels of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, which also has very unreliable narrators, The Dinner should do very well. The Dinner  read more...

It's like the scenario above when you first meet someone.  When a novel is told in the first person, you have to believe what that character is telling you. Here's the basic plot:  Paul Lohman, the narrator, and his wife are to have dinner with his big shot politician brother (who's running for prime minister of the Netherlands) and his wife at a very fancy restaurant. The novel's dramatic framework is set to the courses of the dinner, "Aperitif",  "Appetizer" etc.  As the meal progresses, we learn that Paul's son and his brother's son have committed a horrifying act that was caught on a grainy video tape.  The parents know it's their sons.  They have come together, at this dinner, to discuss what to do about it.  As we see this dinner play out through the eyes of Paul, we begin to see, feel, Paul's unreliability as well as the true dislike he has for his brother and the hostility he feels towards him.  Paul shows his abhorrence for his brother and the pretentiousness of the restaurant by continually making snarky comments about the food and that the waiter is constantly explaining the food while pointing at it with his pinkie finger.  We truly begin to see Paul's unreliability when he refuses to divulge information.  Paul gets put on leave from his teaching job and is diagnosed with a "problem" which supposedly causes him to be violent.  But he will not tell us what it is.  According to him, we don't "need to know".  There are several other omissions by Paul.  If these omitted facts had been told, it could have given us a clue as to what's up.  But by not telling us this info, it keeps us guessing.  Which is the point.  We do learn that Paul and his wife desperately wanted a child.  When they finally had their son, Paul always tried to make his family the "perfect" family and as we go along, we find it is anything but.   By the time I'm 3/4 of the way through the book, I'm  screaming at it, NO! No way! Come on?  Really?  Because now we are in the waters of how far will a parent go to protect the ones they love?  Can children be inherently evil and to what extent can we blame parents for the misdeeds of their children?  One of the parents makes this comment (spoiler alert): “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.” By the end of the book, a lot of questions HAVE NOT been answered.  Clearly that was the intent of the author.  The keep it unreliable until the end.   A good companion book along these same lines, about "evil" children,  is Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003).

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