16 January 2014

Tournament of Books X: Herman Koch's THE DINNER

What makes the term "page-turner" a pejorative is books like this one. Composed of flash paper, THE DINNER startles and then disappears, a sub-Pinter drama of familial nastiness more invested in shoving surprises into its back half than having those surprises make sense when piled on each other.

Moving back and forth in time, THE DINNER's central meal is held at a slightly-too-fancy restaurant where brothers Paul and Serge are having dinner with their wives. Serge is in politics and picked the restaurant because he knows the maƮtre d'; Paul, a former school teacher, resents the venue and the tiny portions. Both of them dance exaggerated politeness around each other in order not to confront the central issue, a concern involving a crime and their sons. The central issue arrives like clockwork just before dessert.

The first review that popped up under a recent search for this novel called it a European GONE GIRL, and THE DINNER retains that slippery nastiness that causes every character, including the supposedly trustworthy narrator to leave a slime trail throughout the book. If only as much time had been invested into the origins of that nastiness! For example, a major feeder of tension into this dinner, the narrator's relationship with his brother, is never properly established; the reader gets only glimpses and thrown-out asides, intimations of a grand history without which they both look even more petty and graceless than they do already. But even that gets more airtime than the cartoonish wives, who play pivotal roles in what happened but talk such nonsense they might as well be Charlie Brown's parents.

That's what makes THE DINNER a meager meal, although the cultural issues barely perceptible in its flavors give it more potential (which it didn't live up to). There are suggestions of a discussion of race and class in the Netherlands that are more interesting than what has been reproduced on the page, suggesting that something could have been lost in translation. That would stoke the flames of what is otherwise a pretty cold dish.

(P.S. this is the U.K. cover of the novel. The U.S. one is not bad but this is great.)

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