Every single person in The Dinner, Herman Koch’s 300-page bottle episode of a psychological thriller, is just the absolute worst.
Set in Amsterdam (the book is translated from its original Dutch), The Dinner is about two couples who go to a fancy dinner together to discuss a pressing matter involving their respective children. Paul Lohman, attending the evening’s festivities with his wife Claire, is a former teacher with a petulant attitude and an impatient streak, both of which he exercises freely against his brother Serge, who, along with his wife Babette, makes up the rest of the dinner party. Serge’s burgeoning candidacy for Netherlands prime minister is but one of many things about him that irks the shit out of Paul.
Structurally, The Dinner is divided into five sections, one for each course of the meal: Apertif, Appetizer, Main Course, Dessert, Digestif. And while the majority of the present-tense action occurs at the dinner table—among the restaurant’s fellow diners and manager and owner, who find themselves minor characters in the evening’s events—interspersed throughout are flashbacks to the circumstances that have brought Paul, Serge, Claire and Babette to this night. The collective momentum of those memories, coupled with the increasingly tense table conversation, makes The Dinner a taut and suspenseful book, the kind that these days will inevitably get compared to Gone Girl. Indeed, GG author Gillian Flynn is quoted on the cover.
Between The Dinner, The People in the Trees and The Girl on the Train, I appear to be having a spring fling with unreliable narrators. But where TPITT and TGOT’s shady storytellers reveal themselves as such fairly early, the unveiling of Paul Lohman is a slow and unsettling burn. A man that at first seems little more than a temperamental homebody with a case of sibling rival is proven over the course of this novel to be something far more sinister. And the lengths to which Paul and Claire will go to protect their son from his mistakes takes The Dinner beyond a routine commentary on the moral relativism that rears its head when parents have to contend with the failings of their progeny. This is a novel that in some weird way combines the thesis of The Unspeakable—“For all the lip service we pay to ‘getting real,’ we remain a culture whose discourse is largely rooted in platitudes”—with the low-hanging enthralling fiction fruit of full-on sociopathy. Without giving anything away, let’s just say that some of these characters’ ideas about poverty and class and humanity prove discomfiting at best.
There are lot of engrossing dynamics in The Dinner (it would make an interesting play)—between Serge and Paul, Serge and Babette, Claire and Serge—but the most fascinating is that between Paul and Claire. Theirs is a deep connection, one that at first seems enviably loving after so many years of marriage: They have inside jokes; they’re on the same page; they can communicate sentiments or plans in just one glance. But the widening spotlight on Paul’s transgressions also illuminates Claire, who ironically shares a name with the character she most reminds me of. In many respects, but perhaps most prominently worldview and approach to problem-solving, Paul and Claire Lohman are the Frank and Claire Underwood of Amsterdam.
I’ve never been a big fan of the phrase “beach read”—it calls to mind book jackets featuring sandals, sunsets and loopy cursive. So in honor of Richard Price (who has said he “snorted” books he loved) I dub The Dinner a snorter, (to join “YAD” in the ST lexicon moving forward). It’s a quick and compelling page-turner, whose most likable characters are almost definitely the upscale restaurant’s fawning (slash seething) wait staff.
TITLE: The Dinner
AUTHOR: Herman Koch
PAGES: 292 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Summer House with Swimming Pool
SORTA LIKE: 2004 Julia Roberts/Clive Owen/Jude Law/Natalie Portman movie Closer meets Notes On A Scandal
FIRST LINE: “We were going out to dinner. I won’t say which restaurant, because next time it might be full of people who’ve come to see whether we’re there.”
(Fun fact: In a short essay at the end of the paperback version of The Dinner, Koch says he always knows he has a new book when he thinks of the first two sentences.)