July 30, 2013 by Jason Seligson
Aperitif. Appetizer. Main Course. Dessert. Digestif.
The Dinner, Herman Koch’s best-selling novel set in Amsterdam, takes place over the course of a single meal. Already an international success and having been recently released in the U.S., the novel follows a unique structure: its chapters are divided into the individual courses served at dinner. The opening chapters depict a semi-awkward, mostly mundane conversation between two brothers, Paul and Serge, and their spouses—but beneath the sibling’s banal small talk lies a dark secret that bonds them together. At first, the story is more of a slow-burn, but Koch deftly divulges character secrets at key moments later on. He subtly lulls the reader into a false sense of security at the start of the evening; we believe this situation is uncomfortable, but ultimately safe. As the meal continues, that sense of security goes out the window as the truth about the Lohman brothers and their respective children comes to light.
It is revealed early on that both Serge and Paul’s children have committed a crime (the precise nature of which I don’t want to spoil). This indiscretion—which as it turns out, was documented on camera and uploaded onto YouTube—is the real reason for the joint family dinner taking place. Paul, the narrator of the story, seems to resent everything about his older brother, Serge, a well-known politician (and a strong candidate for prime-minister). Everything from Serge’s pretentious choice of restaurant to his relationship with his wife disgusts him. He even feels that Serge’s youngest child, Beau, who was adopted from Burkina Faso—was nothing more than a spectacle for the public. As the evening unravels, Paul reflects on his career, marriage, and his relationship with his son.
Unbeknownst to his parents, Beau is now blackmailing his cousins with the truth of what they all did together. Serge is the prime-minister to be—so how does he plan on dealing with his son’s actions without jeopardizing his prospects? With his career on the line, Serge arguably has the most to lose—but one of the most surprising developments comes from watching the other characters react to his final decision. Paul stumbles onto the truth about his son and his nephews before coming to the restaurant; but as the evening progresses he is shocked to discover (well into the appetizers) that he may not have all the information. A cryptic voice-mail on his son’s phone prompts Paul to question his wife, Claire, and her involvement in the crime. Koch keeps the reader guessing—is she trying to cover for her son or does she have an entirely different agenda?
As tensions at the restaurant reach a boiling point, everyone’s loyalties are questioned—including Paul’s. Koch draws an ambiguous narrator whose reliability starts off questionable and only wanes from there. Without giving away too much plot, there is a moment—or several—that makes you reevaluate the entire Lohman clan. Strangely, the first half of the novel indicates that the characters are defined by their choices (and the consequences thereof) while the second half proposes the opposite—that perhaps biology dictates far more than anything else. The confluence of these two ideas is what makes the story so intriguing, so morally murky and so very disturbing.
The Dinner has been called the European Gone Girl and the comparisons aren’t unfounded. Much like in Gillian Flynn’s best-seller, nothing in Koch’s world is as it seems, particularly the idyllic family portrait. While the two books differ greatly in story, they share a great deal in theme and tone. Gone Girl depicts both the courtship and disintegration of a married couple, while The Dinner is about a similar psychological and abusive spiral that profoundly affects these two families. One of the main difficulties of The Dinner is that so many of the core characters are unlikable (Gone Girl has this issue in both of its narrators). Still, in many ways, The Dinner is about the lengths we are willing to go to protect our loved ones. One of the most compelling aspects of the book is how it subverts readers’ expectations—everything we initially believe to be true is suspect. Character backgrounds and story secrets are meant to be questioned; we aren’t sure who to trust and Koch keeps shifting the paradigm, slowly serving up additional morsels of information to keep us on our toes.
The Dinner feels very cinematic—like an intimate drama. Television series will sometimes do a “bottle episode,” or a story where all of the characters are stuck in one location for an extended period of time. In these types of stories, the ensuing conflict comes from the characters’ close proximity to one another, forcing them to face their problems head-on. Bottle episodes are tricky to pull off but with the right execution can be masterful (Seinfeld with “The Chinese Restaurant,” which also took place entirely in a restaurant, Breaking Bad with “The Fly,” or Community’s brilliant riff on the whole concept with “Cooperative Calligraphy”). The bottle format works for television because it’s an episodic medium—whereas translating the idea for an entire book is something else entirely (and arguably harder to pull off). Ultimately, aside from a few minor pacing issues, I think the bottle structure dovetails really nicely with this particular story. Everything feels heightened because of how boxed in the reader feels—this way the readers feel like they’re at the table with the characters, an invisible fifth guest at what feels like one of the longest dinners ever.
These days, consuming any kind of entertainment is a lot like eating a big meal—in both you have to pace yourself. Despite the temptation to binge, it’s more satisfying when you savor it; consuming the story in smaller, more easily digestible courses. Such is the case with a book as complex as The Dinner. It’s a dark and twisty ride that takes family loyalty to a whole new level, and is as enjoyable as it is unsettling.