The protagonist Paul Lohman, his wife Claire, his brother Serge, and his partner Babette meet for dinner at a high-end restaurant in Amsterdam. Underneath the pretence of normality exists a dark secret, both of their sons have committed unspeakable crimes. As the CCTV footage of the as yet unidentified young men circulates, the parents know that it is only a matter of time until their sons are discovered.
It is as if Herman Koch wrote the outline for The Dinner (2009) and stopped there. The promising premise is rendered flat and uninteresting by Koch’s two dimensional protagonist and confusing flashback structure.
You have to wonder why Koch opted for Paul’s first person perspective. Later in the novel, a flashback reveals to us the moment that Paul discovers a video of his son torturing and murdering a homeless woman on the streets of Amsterdam. Like many of Koch’s flashback structures, it is so convoluted that it strips away any shock value, and the reader is left questioning why this moment, along with the criminal act itself, is not at the forefront of Paul’s internal monologue from the beginning of the novel.
The Dinner is more plot driven than character driven. However, it would have benefitted from the latter form given the intimate circumstances of the situation. In an effort to put plot first, Koch employs an intricate web of flashbacks. Far from adding depth to the relationships at stake in the Lohman family dynamic, they confuse the timeline of events and act as cobbled-together attempt to create intrigue.
Reading The Dinner, you would be forgiven for thinking that Paul has forgotten his wife’s name. Koch must have been tempted to think that if Paul called Claire ‘my wife’ several hundred times, even in his own internal monologue, that the phrase would create a shared history and a level of intimacy that it is hard for the reader to ignore.
This is not the case. I would be tempted to claim that Koch’s repertoire of female character traits is lacking, if it were not the case for the men in the book as well. Claire exists in a world of small, butterfly-like touches pressed onto Paul’s wrist, his shirt, his chest.
I’m unsure as to whether the later reveal that Claire knew about their son’s crimes before Paul is ironic, showing of course that Claire has more of an internal life and intricate nature than Paul’s perspective gives her credit for. This is ultimately unsatisfying; I could have told you that myself.
The one half-interesting character Koch manages to cobble together is Serge. Politician, husband, father of three boys (two biological and one adopted), and subject of his younger brother’s critical gaze, Serge is a beacon of light that hints towards some nuance. Unfortunately, we never quite get there. Koch decides early on that Serge’s appetite is the most interesting quality about him, and he defends this choice to the death throughout the novel. I can’t help but think that the description lavished on Serge’s ferocious appetite would be better placed elsewhere.
On to the dinner itself.
What could have been a satirical look into the minutiae of a dinner date that no one wants to attend fails by being too serious. Koch’s attempts of comedic relief, such as the maître d poising his pinkie finger over every morsel of food and explaining, in painstaking detail, its origins, are rendered flat by repetition.
Small moments of grace that make some progress in creating the impression that Paul is a relatable person are belittled again and again. One chapter starts promisingly with the admission that ‘I went to the men’s room, but when I came back the main course still hadn’t arrived’. If left to stand alone, this might have worked. Koch stamps this slice of life into the ground by evoking a flashback that takes us back to the men’s room. He then proceeds to have Paul describe the furnishings for the rest of the chapter.
Thankfully, the chapters are short.
Having recently read We Need to Talk About Kevin, I inevitably compared the two. It’s true that writers who want to create sociopathic characters might struggle, after all, aren’t they meant to be unemotional? Shriver succeeds where Koch fails; she realised that revelations about sociopathic children might be gained through an in-depth look into the parent, or indeed the parenting.
As the novel drones on, we come to an impasse. Half way through, Koch decides to give us a small insight into why Paul might not be reacting appropriately to his son’s recent crime. Through a flash back that Koch manages to sting out through the rest of the book, we are drip fed the revelation that Paul lost his history teacher job ten years ago because, once challenged about some of his more vigorous teaching methods, he punched the principal in the nose. And what does this do exactly? Almost nothing. We find that Paul, like his son, has sociopathic tendencies. Do we care? No, because Paul is intensely unlikable.
Ultimately, I enjoyed hate reading The Dinner. The price of the book was almost worth the gratification that comes from slating it. If you’re looking for a novel that delves deep into the wide-reaching impact that a violent crime has on a family unit, look far away from Herman Koch’s The Dinner.