I'll be honest. The only reason I considered reading The Dinner is the review quotation on the cover which calls it "the European Gone Girl". I really liked Gone Girl. I saw Koch's book wasn't doing so hot on Goodreads (I consider anything under 3.50 "bad" because I am picky and/or I don't have time to read every book in the universe, right?) but I still decided to give it a go because it actually sounded interesting.
Two sets of parents (Paul, the narrator, and Claire; Babette and Serge) are meeting at a restaurant to discuss a horrible incident involving their children. Ooh, family dysfunction. How delicious. It's going to be really hard to talk about this book because the actual incident is supposed to be part of the mystery. In Gone Girl, we know that Amy goes missing. It doesn't spoil the twists to know that. But what went down between the parents' children is one of the "big twists"; I put it in quotation marks because it's one of my issues with the book.
This book is short--barely 300 pages--and that's another reason I decided to read it. Even if it's not good, I thought, at least it's short. Despite its tiny length, I was horrified by how overly long the book felt. Seriously, it took me two weeks to read the thing because it dragged. The whole thing is very strange structurally--our narrator, one of the fathers, slides in and out of time. Whole chapters will be about events that happened 10 years before the dinner that we're supposed to be paying attention to. I ought to applaud Koch for how realistic this feels--I know that real people's thoughts are never focused solely on the matter at hand--but it grew tiresome after the first two or three times. There's an uncomfortable scene where Paul goes to the bathroom to escape his insufferable brother; another man walks in and we get a treatise on how loud the other man's pee stream is. WHY.
Another of the problems I have with the book is how the narrator will bring something up and then refuse to talk about it. I mean, I realize that he has some mental illness thing (which is one of the things he won't talk about directly--we get an episode where he is with the psychologist getting the diagnosis but he won't tell us what he has specifically) and so the narration of The Dinner is supposed to be unreliable. I love unreliable narrators. But this is a terrible way to use it. In The Turn of the Screw, the governess is unreliable and it's never made clear if the ghosts actually exist, but that's the point of the novella! When Paul avoids talking about "big twists", it's just frustrating because we're not supposed to be unclear what they are. Why am I having information intentionally withheld from me?
The characters are really unlikeable--I suppose that's like Gone Girl? But it really isn't. Objectively, I knew that Nick and Amy were horrible people, but I was nonetheless swayed to be sympathetic to both of them because that's how great Gillian Flynn was at making her characters. The Dinner is packed full of heavy moral questions and characters that make bad choices and we hate them. But we never feel sympathy for them, so the book is in general unsatisfying. Great, I said, I just spent four hours with a bunch of people I don't like even remotely.
Herman Koch's book was just so bizarre. It felt oddly hyperrealistic, but it was a feature of the novel that I think did more harm than good. Sometimes I was struck by clever things, sharp pieces of writing or poignant flashbacks, but more often than not I was frustrated by how I had no idea what was going on. Interesting experiment, but one that I think ultimately failed. Sorry, Herman.
My rating: 2/5
The Dinner on Goodreads
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