The Dinner Tasty, though not Gourmet

Herman Koch
Hogarth 978-0385346856
* * *

The Dinner was a runaway bestseller in Europe that has recently been translated from Dutch into English. It’s a good read, though not one that justifies the hullabaloo. I’ve no idea who (if anyone) influenced whom, but North American audiences will find startling parallels between The Dinner and William Landay’s Defending Jacob. Both novels center on the dilemma of what parents should (or will) do if they discover that one of their children has committed an atrocity. Both also probe the question of whether the biological sins of fathers are visited upon their sons. Facebook also factors prominently in each novel.  
The biggest difference is that Landay’s book is a thriller, and Koch’s book is a drama wrapped in a black comedy. The book’s revelations unfold during (and at the pace of) an evening-long dinner between two Dutch brothers and their wives, none of whom particularly like each other. Paul Lohman is a former high school teacher, who snapped badly in the classroom, wasn’t well served by the psychological community, and hasn’t worked since. He and his polished, scheming wife Claire have a 15-yar-old son, Michel. Serge is Paul’s opposite­—an airbrushed politician who carefully measures each word and emotion before exposing them to the public. He’s so good at it that few see beneath the sheen and he’s the odds-on favorite to become the next prime minister of The Netherlands.
Serge and his wife, Babette, are actually insufferable social climbers keen to polish their caring image.  They live amidst haute bourgeois splendor with two biological children, 15-year-old Rick, 13-year-old Valerie, and “Beau,” an adopted black son from Burkina Faso. Saints preserve anyone that even hints that Beau is anything less than 100% Dutch, or that political correctness can be self-parodying. Serge likes to be in control of everything, including picking the restaurant in which the foursome dines.  Because that establishment has the buzz of being hot, Serge sings its praises though it’s actually a humble joint basking in its brief moment of hipness. The owners and staff are hovering and obsequious stuffed shirts the likes of which will try to make patrons think that browned butter is their own gourmet invention. Some of the book’s most hysterical passages involve wait staff regaling diners with the provenance of every (tiny) portion on their plates.
 As we proceed through the courses from aperitif to coffee, we learn that this novel’s takedown of the petty bourgeoisie forces us to gaze at what lurks beneath lustrous surfaces. The purpose of the dinner is to discuss what should be done about something Michel and Rick have done (and to which Beau is privy). I shall say no more, other than the resolution probably won’t play out the way you expect.  
The Dinner is a tasty read. It’s also akin to its setting in that its reputation is more exalted than what makes its way to the table. Think a very good hamburger, not a gourmet meal.
Rob Weir

No comments: