Post #117: One Man Book Club, Part Three (Herman Koch’s “The Dinner”)

Book Reviews

dinnerI 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.

Benjamin: Maybe.

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.

Benjamin: No


Post #104: One Man Book Club: The Family Fang

Book Reviews

The-Family-FangAt the insistent urges and blasting emotional hornpipe of my beloved, but total pain in the ass, intern, Zane Kai, we’re doing another round of One Man Book Club. Zane felt that our first foray into the scene with our multi-part take on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was a success and not long ago in the office, told me he was about to read Kevin Wilson’s The Family Fang. I’d heard of the book and was intrigued. “Just in case,” Zane had bought not one, but two copies of the bestseller, in hopes we could read it together and then chat about it for the book club, which he’s “seriously hoping can become a regular part of the blog because it’s way fun.” He also lobbied that we call it Two Man Book Club instead of One Man Book Club, since technically there’s two of us, but I pulled rank and told him we’d already called it One Man Book Club and that we didnt’ want to confuse people.

We both read the book last month, then over lunch the other day (carry in Thai food), Zane cued up his digital recorder and he’s what happened.

Zane Kai: Benjamin, I have to tell you, I’m thrilled we’re doing another round of the book club.

Benjamin: Yeah. We’ll see how it goes. I have some errands to run, so…

Zane Kai: And I have to say, I loved, loved, loved this book!

Benjamin: Me too, actually. It was…

Zane Kai: The way Wilson blends comedy with pathos is really effective, don’t you think?

Benjamin: Yeah, I…

Zane Kai: And it was funny! Don’t you think it was laugh out loud funny!

Benjamin: Totally, I…

Zane Kai: But sad too! So sad. I mean, some of what happens to Annie and Buster has to border on child abuse, right? Like…somebody call DCF!!

Benjamin: Are you going to let me talk now or keep interrupting me?

Zane Kai (looks at floor): Sorry.

Benjamin: Maybe we should give a quick synopsis for anyone who hasn’t read it?

Zane Kai: Do you want to?

Benjamin (waving hands): No, no. You’re clearly rolling.

Zane Kai: Okay. So, The Family Fang, for anyone who doesn’t know, is about The Fang Family, headed up by performance artist parents, Caleb and Camille, who are already quite famous in the art world by the time they have two kids, Buster and Annie. At first, because it’s what they’ve been taught, they worry having kids will ruin their art, but instead they decide, even when the kids are young, to incorporate them into their performance pieces, which mostly consist of staging random unexpected happenings and distractions at various malls, all engineered to see what happens. They’re outrageous. As the book opens, we meet Buster and Annie when they’re both adults and both floundering, Buster as a fledging novelist, and Annie as an up and coming movie star who’s an emotional mess and may have messed up her career. Both end up, for reasons I won’t spoil because they’re so funny and wonderful, living back at home where they fight against becoming re-embroiled into the sphere of their parents’ artistic web. Is that enough for now?

Benjamin: Yeah. That was good. Don’t want to give away too much. Nice synopsis, Zane.

Zane Kai: Thank you!!

Benjamin: So, how do you want to do this? Like last time?

Zane Kai: Well, I was picturing more of a conversation instead of an interview since we both read this one and only YOU had read Pride and Prejudice and I was asking you about it. Is that okay?

Benjamin: Fine by me. What struck you about the book?

Zane Kai: Well, the format, for one.

Benjamin: Yeah, by description, I wouldn’t necessarily jump at a book that alternates so frequently, but it really works, going back and forth between present action and past detail of all the artistic events the Fangs have staged over the years.

Zane Kai: I agree. I wonder if that’s how Kevin Wilson always envisioned it, or if that structure came later.

Benjamin: I would hazard that it came later. Who knows? But I have a hunch the artistic flashbacks were at first more organically interwoven into the present, but it works better with them pulled out. It’s also clever how, even though the performance pieces are in the past, they’re chosen to add something to what’s happening in the present. You know? And they, for the most part, move forward in time.

Zane Kai: Yes! Good point. I totally hadn’t thought about that. You are such an astute reader.

Benjamin: Don’t try to butter me up, Zane. You’re not getting another raise. We already had this discussion.

Zane Kai: Can’t blame a guy for trying!

Benjamin: Did you have a favorite, I mean, among the performance pieces? They’re pretty outrageous.

Zane Kai (flipping through his book): Let’s see. I…uh…yes, I mean, for pure laughs, the one where the kids are the horrible two piece band and the parents pretend to be angry hecklers is amazing. I felt so bad for those children! For power, though, and cleverness, and sheer bizarreness, the Romeo and Juliet thing really stands out. The way it all comes together. I don’t want to spoil it for readers, but…

Benjamin: God, I forgot about that. Oh man, that was awful. That’s the thing with this book. So many of the laughs and situations are engineered both for laughs and for heart ache, especially when you are always re-visiting Buster and Annie in their tumultuous present, where, essentially, they’re both cripples of a sort, pretty much unable to deal with life and love and friendship. That’s how scarred they are by this experience. And they both really know it. There’s no gray area in their minds about why they can’t function well in life.

Zane Kai: Yeah. Even though it’s satirical much of the time, the book asks some pretty poignant questions about art, the nature of art, and what it’s okay to do in the name of art. Caleb is always saying grand things about art, like “great art is hard.”

Benjamin: Yeah.

Zane Kai: It’s true, though, isn’t it? Great art is hard. And demands sacrifice.

Benjamin (flipping pages): And what about this, towards the end of the book, when Caleb says, “And now, we’ve made something better than anything we’ve done before, and you two are not a part of it.” “We’re a part of it,” Buster said. “We’re your son and daughter.” “That doesn’t mean anything,” Caleb said. I mean, those words are not said in jest. These people truly care far more about their art and its execution than about their own children.

Zane Kai: Do you think that they love them?

Benjamin: Good question. I don’t know. In so much as they are contributing to the art and the furthering of it. It’s hard to imagine hearts quite that cold and detached. It’s actually right there that the book lost me a little. Even though it’s true for the characters and consistent, that’s a little hard to get over.

Zane Kai: I thought the book lost a little steam in the last third.

Benjamin: Undeniably. Though it didn’t slow me down. I destroyed this book. Read it in two or three days.

Zane Kai: Me too! I got into the bath one night and had nearly seventy-five pages left and I was so engrossed I didn’t get out until I was done. I was so pruney! I posted pictures of my fingers on Instagram!

Benjamin: That’s a lot of information, Zane.

Zane Kai: Do you think the book is offensive at all? I was talking to a friend who also read it. You remember Wu Cole? My ex? He wants to be in the book club by the way.

Benjamin: Let’s not get carried away. We can’t have a One Man Book Club that had three people in it.

Zane Kai: It’s not a one man book club! We’re sitting here talking, two men, right now! Gosh!

Benjamin: You were saying…

Zane Kai: Oh. Well, Wu, he read it and stopped reading because he found it offensive. He felt like the Fangs treatment of their kids was just too much. He said he was laughing at first, but when he realized how screwed up Annie and Buster really were, he lost interest and it felt too heavy. Like it’s not okay to laugh so much at something that’s actually so sad.

Benjamin: Yeah, I guess I can see where he’s coming from. I didn’t have that reaction, but.

Zane Kai: Do you think, ultimately, the book argues anything?

Benjamin: I wonder. I think he’s pretty sly about it actually.  This book seems to almost debate with itself about the lengths you can go to create art. On a macro scale, it’s played for laughs much of the time here, sometimes not, but on a day to day basis, there’s a lot to think about. I thought a lot about it…what I’m willing to do and give up in the name of my art. It sounds heavy handed to pontificate about it, but…I mean, a lot of artists and writers spend time away from their family, use the people around them. A lot of artists are leeches. And very selfish. I think as an artist himself, Wilson knows this. It’s hard not to imagine he’s kind of making fun of himself at times.

Zane Kai: I wonder about that.

Benjamin: Would be interesting to learn more about Wilson’s background.

Zane Kai: I’d say on the whole we really liked it! Wouldn’t you?

Benjamin: I would. Two thumbs up.

Zane Kai: Make it four thumbs!

Benjamin: Jesus.




Post #91: One Man Book Club (Pride and Prejudice), Concluded

Book Reviews

Sincere apologies for taking so long to conclude this inaugural edition of One Man Book Club, Pride and Prejudice. If you’ve been waiting and grown tired of waiting, blame me, not my intern Zane Kai. Zane has been all over me like bubbles on beer to talk about the last third of the book, the details of which are beginning to elude me, but which I attempted to recall with as much thoughtfulness and detail as would please the ever picky Zane Kai when we chatted in the office the other day over lunch.

Zane Kai (Clicking on his tape recorder, licking mustard from his index finger): Benjamin! Glad we could finally sit down to talk about the last third of Pride and Prejudice. It feels like a million trillion years since we’ve talked about it.

Benjamin: I’ve been really busy Zane. You know that. You work here.

Zane Kai: Of course! But you know me and Jane Austen. Can’t get enough. I’ve been dying to know what you thought of how it all turned out. So…

Benjamin: Honestly, Zane. I feel kind of bad saying it, but…I skimmed the last eighty pages.

Zane Kai: What!

Benjamin: I’m just being honest! I don’t want to lie.

Zane Kai: Well…

Benjamin: Wait, wait. Not because I didn’t like it.

Zane Kai: Then, why…

Benjamin: I don’t know. It just. I mean. I did like it. I sincerely did. I’m glad I read it and, for the most part, I can see why so many people love the book. And why it’s a classic. It’s so well written. And full of great characters and, it’s totally hilarious. That’s actually probably my favorite thing about it, how funny it was. But…it all started to seem a little obvious, don’t you think? It kind of wore me down.

Zane Kai: What started to seem obvious?

Benjamin: The ending, Zane! The ending. Why else would I skim?

Zane Kai: Okay. Gosh. Sorry. You don’t have to yell.

Benjamin: I didn’t yell. You’re so sensitive. This is how I always talk. You should know by now that I’m not mad at you or anything.

Zane Kai: Okay. Sorry. So…the ending.

Benjamin: Right, the ending. Well, I mean, there’s no doubt that they’re all going to get together, the two couples. But Lydia and Wickham. I didn’t see that shit coming. I don’t really get Wickham. He’s a jerk, right? A liar and a thief. But then he’s, sort of, cured by his authentic love for Lydia? I didn’t really follow the arc of his character. It feels like we’re meant to judge him against Darcy the whole time, or to wonder about their relative virtue, except not really because Darcy is so much the better man all along that it feels unfair, even as Wickham is the honorable soldier and Darcy just the moneyed lord. And then when Lydia ends up with Wickham, it feels as if Austen is commenting on Elizabeth in comparison to Lydia. But maybe I’m reading too much into it. I think Austen kind of worshipped Elizabeth if that’s fair to say.

I will say this. By the time it all came down to the inevitable marriages and clarification of being self-involved gossiping blithering idiots, I was more moved by Jane and Bingley getting together than I was by Elizabeth and Darcy.

Zane Kai: Why?

Benjamin: Honestly? I got kind of tired of waiting for Darcy and Elizabeth. This novel kind of gave me blue balls in that this love, which you know is there, and you know damn well is going to eventually come to fruition and in the company of massive forgiving and admitting-I-was-an-idiot kind of talk, takes soooo long to get to that point. I mean, sooo long. At least with Bingham and Jane the drama felt a bit more authentic. Not just in Elizabeth’s head. Still subjected to the same gossip machine and rumor mill that dominated these people’s lives, though. Amazing to think that people would ignore a heart full of love based on conjecture and innuendo. The Victorians would have gone fucking hog wild with Facebook and Twitter.

Zane Kai: What, in the end, do you think the novel is about? Or what is it trying to say?

Benjamin: I don’t know. Self-discovery?

Zane Kai: Not love?

Benjamin: Not as much as discovery. I mean it’s Elizabeth’s novel, right?

Zane Kai: Do you find that satisfying? As the basis for the novel, I mean?

Benjamin: I’m going to answer that question more tangentially by saying it’s unfair for me to judge harshly the terms on which a person does or doesn’t find herself and that self-discovery is a totally legitimate topic for a novel, whether it’s set on Mars or in my local post office. I mean, it’s not Elizabeth’s fault that her life is small and boring. At least boring in my eyes. She might have been searching for herself on the open sea. Or in a war. It doesn’t make the search for self any less authentic that it’s a search that happens mostly in living rooms and bedrooms and over meals and fancy dances. And here’s where Austen really achieved something, I guess. In projecting that urgency on the drawing room. Elizabeth is still out there, doing it, trying to make sense of life, trying to figure out what life is and how she fits into it. Dealing with her crazy family, her own prejudices and limitations. Trying to decide what kind of person she is and wants to be. What kind of man could make her happy. What she needs to overcome to improve as a person. All those things are legitimate characteristics of any search for self. So I guess it’s about that. And love, sure. Fine. And realizing that what’s best for you might be staring you dead in the face, even if you can’t see it.

Zane Kai: Care to give it a rating? Out of five stars.

Benjamin: No. I’m not going to rate it. Who am I to rate it? People have been reading this book for two hundred years. Devouring this book for two hundred years. Adapting and worshipping it. Just call me one more and we’ll leave it at that.

Post #85: One Man Book Club, Continued

Book Reviews

My intern, Zane Kai, has been anxious to talk to me some more about Pride and Prejudice, which, as you know, I’m reading as an endeavor I’m describing as a One Man Book Club. In case you’ve forgotten, I’m reading P&P because it just celebrated the 200th anniversary of its publication. And because I never have.

Zane Kai: Benjamin! Wow! It looks like you’ve really made some progress. When we spoke the first time, you’d read only 70 pages or so, but it looks like you’re well over two thirds the way through.

Benjamin: I am. Just broke two hundred. Slow but steady wins the race with this one.

Zane Kai: So bring me up to speed, what’s been happening?

Benjamin: But…you know the story.

Zane Kai: I know! But I want to hear it from you.

Benjamin: Well, let me see. There’s been a lot of drama for Elizabeth. First she was sure Darcy was a total prick because she thought he was proud and conceited, and then she got duped by this hot shot asshole good looking dude Wickham who sold her a bill of goods about Darcy and what kind of man he was. All the while, Darcy is in love with Elizabeth. He has been the whole book. He confesses to her, but she’s full of false information about him, both the Wickham stuff, but also stuff about this guy Bingley, Darcy’s best friend (they seem like they might be gay) who had the hots for Elizabeth’s sister Jane.

Zane Kai: What happened there?

Benjamin: Why do you keep asking me questions like you don’t know the novel. It’s driving me crazy.

Zane Kai: Because it’s an interview.

Benjamin: Anyway, Bingley and Jane had this amazing connection, or so it seemed, but then Bingley vanished away to the country or something, leaving Jane hanging and wondering and feeling pretty lousy about things. Jane and Elizabeth’s family doesn’t have a lot of cash, and so she thought it was about that. Come to find out that it was Darcy who persuaded Bingley to get away from Jane.

Zane Kai: That’s right!

Benjamin: So, when Darcy tells Elizabeth he loves her and asks for her hand, she pretty much kicks him in the balls and eats his lunch for him.

Zane Kai: Oh man.

Benjamin: She really rips him a new one. Wait, let me find the…okay, “I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.” And this was in a time period when, it seems, women who didn’t come from big money did NOT turn down marriage proposals. And this is E’s second refusal in a hundred pages. First this other guy, Collins, I think, asked her to marry him an she was like, hell no. Eventually, though, Darcy writes her this long letter that clears the air and explains that he got Bingley away from Jane because he doubted Jane’s feelings for his friend and he was just looking out for him. And it also turns out that Wickham is the bad guy, not Darcy and there was some shady dealings with Darcy’s father and his will. So now Elizabeth is feeling really stupid and judgmental and girlish and all that, preyed upon by the very emotions that she is so often disdaining in other people. Pride and pre-judgment, mainly. Hence the title. It’s pretty clever actually, the way she’s always deceiving herself and walking into walls and learning.

Zane Kai: Where are things now?

Benjamin: Kind of in a holding pattern. Darcy seems changed to Elizabeth, less prideful and full of himself. Clearly he loves her and wants to marry her, and she seems to be coming around to liking him. But there’s all this jealousy and catty bullshit with some of the other female characters. These women are seriously shallow. There’s this one section where Bingley’s sister, who doesn’t like Elizabeth, starts talking shit about her looks, saying she hasn’t earned her reputation as a beauty. She even criticizes Elizabeth’s teeth! She says, “her teeth are tolerable, but not out of the common way.” What the hell does that even mean, the common way? And who rags on someone else’s teeth?

Zane Kai: Are you enjoying the book? It sounds like you are. You’ve been very animated talking about it.

Benjamin: Have I?

Zane Kai: You have.

Benjamin: I am. For sure, I am. It’s terrific. I often put books down that I’m not enjoying and I’m anxious to finish P & P. The characters are genuinely compelling. Mostly. There’s some things that get on my nerves. In some ways, I wish I was reading this book with other people. I think I’d be enjoying it a little more.

Zane Kai: What do you mean?

Benjamin: Well…then they could tell me to stop being annoyed by things that are totally unreasonable to be annoyed by when reading a book about another time period where part of the point is that society is different. Thus, people are. I mentioned before how I don’t have a big romantic place in my heart for the Victorian age.

Zane Kai: Be more specific.

Benjamin: Well, it’s a love story, right?

Zane Kai: Well…yes…of course.

Benjamin: But they’re never together! Doesn’t that bother you?

Zane Kai: They’re together. What do you mean?

Benjamin: Not really. Not like people who are getting together usually are. Or are now. They never get to, you know, hang out, or go on dates, or even get to know each other. The courtship ritual is so alien to me. So much is left to chance. Most of what Elizabeth knows and feels about Darcy is based on conjecture, rumor, reflection, and day dreaming. She has all these beliefs about him, then they change, but they might just as easy go right back to where they were. She has no real access to him. They certainly can’t have sex or be intimate until married so she has no idea if they’re compatible physically.

Zane Kai: But it wasn’t appropriate then.

Benjamin: I know! That’s what I mean. Other people could tell me to stop caring about this stuff. And…

Zane Kai: What?

Benjamin: I just, I feel bad for these women. I can’t help it! Their lives are so shallow. All their happiness and energy is bound up in the pursuit of men and they have so little control over it in the end. There’s so much petty gossip. They hardly seem to have other endeavors or passions.

Zane Kai: That’s not their fault!

Benjamin: I know, I know.

Zane Kai: How do you think it all turns out?

Benjamin: I honestly don’t know. She keeps it pretty lively, Jane Austen. A lot of twists and turns. Lots of misdirection. Though hardly anything really happens, the book is surprisingly suspenseful. I’d be pretty shocked if she and Darcy don’t end up together.

Zane Kai: It’s amazing you’ve managed to be alive so long and not know how Pride and Prejudice ends.

Benjamin: Thanks, Kai.