Friday, January 24, 2014

the dinner.

Despite my despair with reading Curtis Sittenfeld's Sisterland, I quickly reprised my role as an engaged and excited reader with Herman Koch's The Dinner. Within 24 hours, I had finished this Dutch-in-translation novel. It's a quick read. It's not very long. It feels almost like an extended short story, a novella. The story is so tight and there is little foreground action, but so very much is going on.

I can't really get into a synopsis, for fear of ruining the book for you. The unraveling of the story is what this novel is all about. Two married couples meet over dinner at a high-end restaurant. Paul, one of the husbands, is the narrator. Immediately, I liked him. His remarks at the expense of the ostentatious establishment and the patrons were funny and rather spot-on. But, gradually, beginning with the appetizer, it is revealed that the couples are meeting to discuss a serious matter in which both their teenage sons are involved. Over the course of the dinner, we get to know these four people and their children. We learn what has occurred and we (at least I was) appalled. 

But what is so genius is not this appalling situation. It is all that surrounds it. The parents' response, society's take, etc. The Dinner is a remarkable feat; a tightly woven glimpse at a fascinating situation, unraveling lives, envy, parenthood, unconventional paths, fame, and anger.
The only thing I can say I didn't appreciate was that occasionally, our narrator would say things like "I won't tell you what illness" or "what hospital." Or, the more conspiratorial: "I'm not going to tell you the exact time. Exact times can turn on you later." This lends itself less to a narration and more to a confession. This may have been the point (it probably was), but it distracted me from the depths of the story.

This story slides from seemingly innocuous to grotesque in 287 pages. You are almost angry with yourself for not seeing it coming; for being played by this incredibly gifted author. Of course, that doesn't happen often. Authors this skilled are not abundant. This novel is something other. Different. Rather brilliant.

And frankly one for the annals of "everyone should read and then discuss."