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 #112: If You’re Listening to This

New Writing

I’m delighted–hell, I’m downright plucky–to have a story in the September issue of Fogged Clarity. If you’re playing along at home, you’ll remember that earlier in the summer the fine folks at FC published my short story “Who Has Time for Stars?” and I’m pleased to say they recently accepted my story “If You’re Listening to This,” which is now up at FC as we speak. So hop on over there and read it. I’ll make it easy on you. Click here.

It’s an honor to be included in what looks like to be another dynamite issue and I’m grateful to their executive editor Benjamin Evans for including me.

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.