The Dinner, Herman Koch, Hogarth, 2013, 292 pp
This is going to be one of my signature rambling reviews. It will not have a theme nor will it have a through line, except that even a week after finishing The Dinner I can't decide what I think about it.
When I first heard of the book last year, because it had a big buzz, I was repelled by both its description and the reviews I read. I decided not to read it. Then it reared its head on the Tournament of Books 2014 list. I'm not exactly sorry I read it but I could have gotten along just fine in my reading life without it.
Two things I somehow hadn't realized are that this is a translated book (from the Dutch) and that it is set in Amsterdam. While the first person narrator (do we ever learn his name?) did strike me as a foreign version of a particular kind of man, someone I would call an asshole/bigot type best avoided at parties and family gatherings, the rest of the novel could have taken place just as easily in Boston or San Francisco or even Houston. So I don't think the problem stems from location.
The voice of Mr Lohman, narrator, was annoying to me in the extreme. I'm fairly sure that was intentional. Besides his misanthropic views, he goes on and on like a right-winger on talk radio. I did not totally buy that his personality defects could be blamed on his unnamed mental illness, though I suppose I do consider people like him to be mentally unbalanced.
What did work for me was the painstaking and intricate revealing of what was really going on with these two sets of parents. It kept me glued to the pages in morbid fascination. Both marketers and readers have compared The Dinner to Gone Girl, another book I read only because of TOB and still can't make up my mind about. I agree with the comparison for two reasons, one being the painstaking intricate reveal.
The other similarity is a slippery as well as disturbing sense of moral ambiguity. I am currently reading Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut and marveling at his ability to write on the bleeding edge between moral ambiguity and satire; wishing there were authors in the 21st century who wrote that way.
I'm not totally sure but I suspect Herman Koch was going for such a thing. Ultimately he didn't quite pull it off due to a bit too much heavy handedness on the moral ambiguity and a certain less-than-exact rendering of satire. The bleeding edge became a chasm in his hands into which I fell and I can't seem to get out.
(The Dinner is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)