I know, I know. You’ve been salivating for the next installment of our series One Man Book Club (for the un-initiated, prior to now we’ve discussed Pride and Prejudice and The Family Fang). Lucky for you, so has our beloved intern here at The Almost Right Words, Zane Kai, who suggested we read Herman Koch’s The Dinner. We did so, and the other day, as has been our custom, Zane and I caught up over a cup of coffee on our work breaks and had a discussion about the book, which Zane recorded for posterity. Namely, for you.
Zane Kai: Well, well, well.
Benjamin: Well, well, well? What’s that supposed to mean?
Zane Kai: It’s supposed to mean, mister, that it has been way too long since our last book club chat and it’s about time! Readers have been getting in touch and requesting more!
Benjamin: Don’t get too excited Zane.
Zane Kai: Well, darnit, I am excited! I’ve missed our little chats and I am just DYING (puts hand over heart) to hear what you thought of The Dinner.
Benjamin: I’m actually pretty curious to hear what you thought about it as well, because, to be honest, I can’t really decide. What a strange book, don’t you think?
Zane Kai: I do think! It was almost like reading several books at once, the way it blends genres and tones.
Benjamin: Yeah, agreed. It begins as a sort of set piece, almost like a one-act play. These people are going out to dinner. The narrator and his wife and another couple, who there’s clearly tension with. It then turns out to be his brother and his brother’s wife.
Zane Kai: And the brother isn’t just his brother, but is also a big time candidate for a major political position and, unless I’m wrong, they’re on the cusp of some major election cycle.
Benjamin: Yeah. I think that’s right.
Zane Kai: And then, since we’re sort of summarizing, the dinner itself starts and, it’s narrated in first person, and the narrator is reacting to lots of things, commenting on the cost of the food at the restaurant, the overbearing wait staff, and how annoyed he is that he knows the whole place will be in awe of the fact that his brother, the famous politician, is eating there. It’s all very domestic at first.
Benjamin: Right. Right. Except for a seed of foreshadowing, planted early, that there’s something up with the narrator’s teenage son, it all feels very Cheever and Raymond Carver.
Zane Kai: And then, the bottom drops out.
Benjamin: Yeah. Sort of. Wait. What do you mean?
Zane Kai: Well, there’s kind of a spoiler alert here, don’t you think?
Benjamin: Yeah. Do you think we shouldn’t…
Zane Kai: Uh, hey, if you’re reading this, please know that we’re able to divulge some revealing details about a twist in the book.
Benjamin: So anyway, it turns out that the dinner is not just a dinner. It’s been arranged, and for an urgent conversation, because both couples have recently learned that their teenage sons beat up and killed a homeless person, and have filmed themselves beating up others. The crime has been on the news and footage from the ATM camera where the killing happened, but the footage is grainy and the boys’ faces are obscured, but both parents know immediately it’s their kids and now they’re holding onto this secret, trying to decide what to do with it.
Zane Kai: One thing I wanted to ask you about is how the narrator’s character changes over the course of the novel. At first, he’s a somewhat familiar, overly judgmental narrator, but perhaps no different from you and me. But…
Benjamin: It turns out he’s got major issues of his own.
Zane Kai: I’ll say he’s got issues! He beat up his boss and has some serious anger management issues.
Benjamin: What’s interesting about it is the implication that the narrator, this father, quietly knows that his own violent tendencies and problems controlling his anger, have now gone on to negatively affect his own son, a boy who has not only committed this violent act, this accidental killing, but may not even feel that bad about it.
Zane Kai: Totally.
Benjamin: But, I don’t know…
Zane Kai: What?
Benjamin: Well. It’s a powerful revelation, and in this situation, certainly a haunting one. But from a writerly stand point, it’s a little nail on the head for my taste, you know?
Zane Kai: I disagree! I totally do. I think you’re being too influenced by the intimacy of first person.
Zane Kai: What did you think of the ending?
Benjamin: Totally lost me.
Zane Kai: Really! Oh, I loved it.
Benjamin: Yeah, I just…I don’t know, I don’t want to say it wasn’t believable, because I hate when people say that. It’s such a cop out, lame ass criticism.
Zane Kai: So, what then?
Benjamin: I just didn’t find it satisfying.
Zane Kai: Why? I thought it was a fantastic transfer of power. All this time you think the narrator, the father, is going to be the one to flip, and then it turns out to be the wife.
Benjamin: But that’s what I mean. I just didn’t find it in sync with the rest of the book that she would actually physically harm her brother in law in order to keep him from going public.
Zane Kai: She was doing it to protect her son! You never know what people will do to keep their kids safe.
Benjamin: Yeah, maybe.
Zane Kai: It’s one of those storyteller black holes, I guess. Where you take the reader in this purely speculative place where pretty much no one knows how they would actually respond. Like whether you’d eat your friends flesh to stay alive or something. Until it’s you, you don’t know what you would do. And…morally, she turns out to be the weak link.
Benjamin: Yeah, that I agree with. And like. The politician seems like the thin and insubstantial character in the book, but that’s just the smoke of first person, as you were saying. Just us seeing things from the brother’s POV. The truth is that he’s the one who’s willing to sacrifice his son, even willing to see him go to jail so that he’s accountable for what he did and doesn’t have to walk around with this festering wound of guilt his whole life. He’s also decided to end his political candidacy.
Zane Kai: I just saw you look at your watch.
Benjamin: We need to wrap this up and get back to work
Zane Kai: I guess I have to ask, would you recommend The Dinner?
Benjamin: On the whole, yeah. A very unusual and exhilarating book. Taut and very well written, if a bit uneven. Just don’t blame me if it also kind of pisses you off.
Zane Kai: Can I just add one more thing.