Author: Herman Koch
Publisher: Hogarth (2009)
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Paperback Edition: 292 pages plus Reader’s guide, Author Essay and Conversation Source: Library copy
In the opening line of her New York Times Review of The Dinner, Claire Messud stated “North American readers care inordinately that fictional characters be likable.” This reader is one of that group she is referring to, and so this book was a tough read since none of the characters are likeable. The unreliable narrator, Paul Lohman, exhibits shallow and small-minded characteristics and one might lengthen the list. Fiction with dark twists and turns, filled with questionable characters seems especially popular of late. Examples might include Gone Girl, Before the Fall, Girl on the Train. Book marketers call these psychological thrillers.
What Ms. Messud refers to as “carefully calibrated revelations” could be viewed as manipulation by author. Should Paul Lohman be excused his unpleasant nature when two-thirds of the way through the book we learn he has a mental illness, never named? Oh, and his wife spent time in a hospital with a serious illness, also never explained. Apparently, she is now fully recovered. Ms. Messud may think this makes Paul Lohman more interesting. Since it is not explained and the revelation has been withheld through much of the book, a reader is uncertain what to think. Pity may be appropriate , but….. most of the characters are thoroughly unpleasant by the end of this story. Kindness does not live in the world of author Koch or this story. Alas, that may be the point. Kindness has left the world and that is not a good thing. This reader knew it was in short supply so why read this book to have the point hammered?
Koch structured this novel around a dinner at an upscale restaurant attended by the brothers and their spouses supposedly to talk about their children. One of my notes indicates: p. 235 and these people are still not talking about their children. This reader missed it if these two sets of parents ever tried to seriously problem-solve with the welfare of their children in mind. That Paul Lohman even cares if his brother continues as Prime Minister when he has the terrible nature of his son’s actions to consider seems totally ridiculous. The strong pull of sibling rivalry even into adulthood is, in this case, overriding everything. And the “who knows what and when”, always part of this plot seems only to confuse.
Ms. Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs, may find this novel highly readable. Many will not. Somehow the absorption of the adults with their children seemed less to do with love, than with keeping the adult’s lives in a place they are comfortable, not wanting to lose face, not wanting to be thought less of by their peers. The horror of what their sons have done by murdering a homeless woman, if not with intent certainly with carelessness, lack of kindness or caring, seems to escape them. They appear to exist in an alternate reality.
Many readers see the theme in this book as “a parent would do anything to help their child.” Yes, most parents in a similar situation would go to great lengths. That is a given. These parents are even more incapable than their children of thinking of others. It is difficult to refer to them as adults, an unpleasant aspect of this read. If this theme interests you I suggest a novel by Rosellen Brown titled Before and After (1992). It became the basis for a movie of the same name starring Meryl Streep and Liam Neeson (1996).
A movie based on this book is now playing. Even with actors Richard Gere and Laura Linney, two favorites, the movie does not beckon. Two of the adjectives on the cover used to describe this book are nasty and shocking. They are accurate because it is shocking to believe that nasty characters like this are worth reading, thinking or talking about.