The commendation by Christos Tsiolkas on the cover was perhaps the early warning that I wasn’t going to be a huge fan of Herman Koch’s The Dinner, an internationally bestselling book about a sticky moral and ethical dilemma.
My loathing and despising of Tsiolkas’ The Slap is well documented and hasn’t in any way since then waned (I refuse, for example, to link to the book because I wouldn’t want anyone to accidentally add it to their cart). In fact, just typing that sentence I realise I’m angrier than ever.
But that’s an unfair way to open a blog and an unfair way with which to sideline a book. What I’m perhaps trying to say is that although I put my hand up to review The Dinner, after reading it I realise I probably shouldn’t have—it’s not really my kind of book.
But let me explain.
The synopsis is so: Paul Lohman has a difficult relationship with his more affable, more successful brother Serge. Paul and Serge and their wives are due to go to dinner at a too-fancy-by-far restaurant to have a difficult conversation. Their teenage sons have done something very bad and they must decide what they’re going to do to save them. Throw in some pondering about the nature of good and evil and whether it’s born or learnt behaviour and you have the plot.
Written entirely from Paul’s perspective, we get the minutiae of the dinner and his frustrations in excruciating detail. The restaurant is too pretentious, the food and wine to expensive, the waiter too annoying with his penchant for pointing details out with his pinky … the list goes on. Paul’s struggling and we, by being forced to experience his frustrations by proxy, are struggling too.
Which is fine, except that the relentless focus on the dinner details is a clear plot device to conceal the real story (and the only story we want to hear): what their sons have done and what they as their parents are going to do about it. And that’s what annoyed me. I understand the plot mechanisms and the need to unveil key plot points slowly, but each aside about the entrée left me gritting my teeth and, eventually, skimming pages to get to the good bits.
It’s not to say that Koch hasn’t crafted some brilliance—in fact, some of his observations were so clever they were marvel-worthy. These included how he wrote about how Hitler felt the need to conquer Stalingrad based not on geographical considerations and strongholds but on the need to take the city named after his nemesis: ‘It’s on the basis of irrational considerations like that that wars are won,’ I said. ‘Or lost.’
As with Tsiolkas’ The Slap, I didn’t need to like the characters, but I did need to find something to keep me interested in them. None were interesting enough to make me care what happened to them—good or bad.
I was particularly annoyed by Paul’s ‘habit’ or leaving out key details, e.g. the illness he suffered and the one his wife did that kept her in hospital and warranted surgeries. That doesn’t make the tale mysterious, but screams ‘cop out’ to me.
Lionel Shriver used the technique of one-way letters hinting at events and issues courtesy of letters from Eva, the mother, to her husband. Saying ‘we need to talk about Kevin’ (their son), she wrestled with the aftermath of her son having done something very bad and wondering whether it was her fault, whether it’s possible to be born evil. The final chapter of the book includes the big, climactic reveal plus a twist that I personally didn’t see coming.
It was a book that rang much truer to me than The Dinner. Without trying to give the ending away (but I’m issuing a spoiler alert nonetheless), I was disappointed that The Dinner‘s finish was all a bit convenient and that, well, as with The Slap, which promised much controversy and then didn’t deliver it, nothing really happened.
I don’t need to world to be righted and for good to triumph, but I do expect a proper plot to unfold. I felt the climax was rather anti-climactic given Koch had subjected me to hundreds of pages of get-on-with-it delaying and detail—the book ended just when it should have gotten good.
It also meant that I couldn’t forgive or forget some of the details that had long annoyed me, not least that people wouldn’t go to a posh, quiet restaurant where waiters are eternally hovering and overly attentive to discuss how they might—legally or otherwise—protect their sons from the consequences of having wrought some serious evil.
Given how central the dinner at the restaurant was to the book and how much it padded out and hid the real tale, the lack of payoff meant that I couldn’t suspend my disbelief. And while the crime was heinous, after such a long build-up my response was more ‘finally’ than ‘I can’t believe that’s what they did’.
Then again, as I said at the start of this blog, had I realised what the book was about and how it played out (that is, with less mystery than tedium), I probably wouldn’t have put my hand up to review it. If you liked The Slap, this might be up your alley (and I’m very happy to hear from you if my impression of The Dinner is utterly wrong). But if you want to face parental ethical and moral dilemmas in the face of children who do badness, I’d recommend We Need To Talk About Kevin over The Dinner every time.