Books on Tap read The Dinner by Herman Koch at Champion Brewery on November 4. A suspenseful novel told over the course of one evening from a single perspective by an unreliable narrator, it examines racism, mental health, parental influence, politics, self-deception and the self-satisfaction of the bourgeoisie. Paul (former history teacher), along with his wife Claire, meet his brother Serge (a politician under consideration for prime minister) and wife Babette for dinner in Amsterdam. The couples each have a teenage son whose crime has been captured on a security camera and is now online, although neither teen has been identified. Both sets of parents must now decided on a public course of action.
Paul’s unreliability as a narrator launched our discussion of the likeability of characters. Some readers found it hard to care because this family was so off-putting. However, others thought that the issues raised rendered likeability irrelevant. Writing the novel as satire, Koch pushed the characters and situations so far past plausibility and reality to force the readers to examine their culpability in the ethical quandaries. The food descriptions, instead of dull interruptions, are signifiers of the characters pretensions, which may have been more original when the book was published in 2009.
Paul’s mental state colors the reader’s perception of events and motive. Paul claims to have been diagnosed with a mental illness that could have been passed to his teenage son, but refuses to read the results, further turning his back on reality. Would that diagnosis matter as much as the amoral environment in which Paul and Claire have raised him? Would Paul have taught him to be a bully regardless? Claire is just as willing to rationalize his brutal behavior and it is unclear if she is a Lady Macbeth-figure or if events truly spiral out of her control. Teenage boys can do terrible things in small groups without considering the consequences – Serge’s son goes along with Paul’s despite not being raised by a psychopath. As far as we know: the entire story could be a figment of Paul’s delusions, Serge may not be the ethical politician who offers to step down, Claire may not have bashed a glass into Serge’s face.
Koch’s craft and skill as a writer was respected. The ambiguity builds tension for the slow reveals, which kept some readers engaged during otherwise boring descriptions of the meal. We wondered to whom the Paul is relating his account and if Koch believes that his readers share Paul’s delusions (albeit on a smaller scale). A few book club members read the book twice, appreciating it more the second time, especially on audio, where any boring bits passed by faster. In all, The Dinner was a taut tale of (self) deception and responsibility.
Books on Tap Information:
Help us choose upcoming titles by adding to this list.