After finishing the disappointing Summer House With Swimming Pool a few days ago I decided to dip my toe a little further into the pool of YA fiction. I started reading the much praised Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell because she’s all anyone on the internet seems to fucking talk about these days. I can’t say I was blown away and, after getting bogged down in the awful teen melodrama, I took a peak at the ending (which incidentally I do a fair amount of the time and I see nothing wrong with it). It didn’t really fill me with any great desire to finish the book any time soon. Therefore, it seemed like fate when, after an early finish from work gave me a bit of charity shop time, I found a cheap copy of the Herman Koch novel that preceded the topic of my last review.
I finished The Dinner on the same day that I bought it. I started reading it on the train home and finished it during the early hours of the morning. It’s probably one of the few times I’ve been willing to lose sleep thanks to a work of fiction when it didn’t have a knock on effect on my grades. (I know this probably loses me lit nerd points but I really fucking love sleeping.) Although, I’m not sure if it really counts. I have to say that about two thirds in (maybe not even that much) I kind of gave up on a lot of the detail and skim read the remainder of the narrative.
Its a narrative that centres around two brothers and their wives sitting down to dinner in a fancy restaurant to discuss the consequences of their son’s violent behaviour. Obviously taking more than a little inspiration from the brilliant We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Dinner sets out to discuss the nature of evil and how far parents can be held accountable for their child’s actions. However, don’t let this connection fool you into thinking that The Dinner is anywhere near as accomplished as Lionel Shriver’s work. Shriver was a master at placing key moral decisions into her readers’ hands and littered the narrative with shrewd anthropological insights. Koch is clearly writing for a different audience.
The Dinner suffers from the same problems that I found in Summer House. We are once again introduced to an unreliable narrator, Paul, who spends most of his time delaying the rather thin story with constant side notes, stream of consciousness and in-depth descriptions of the meal he was sitting down to. Taking its structure from the courses being served up to our narrator, Paul, and his companions, the novel sets out to take a few pot-shots at the indulgent bourgeois lifestyle of its protagonists. What we actually get is endless description of the pretentious fare and elaborate setting. If Koch is holding up a mirror to anything, it is the self-satisfaction and arrogance of contemporary authors.
Thankfully, Paul is not just unreliable but also extremely unlikeable. As we are all well aware it is not the job of the narrator to be a nice person but, in order to be a successful one, they do have to be interesting. From the start there is something a little unhinged about Paul’s thoughts and actions. His is hot-headedness, obsessive behaviour and deep-seated rivalry with his elder brother all act as warning signs to deeper psychological issues. However, Koch’s decision to explain away his narrator’s actions with reference to an unnamed neurological disorder only obliterates any potential interest in two of the novels central characters. If everything these characters are doing is just part of their programming then there can be no judgement based on their actions. Pretty much the entire novel is rendered moot because it was a natural response.
Forget Lionel Shriver, the best comparison I can make for Koch’s writing is one of those really over-the-top soap operas. It’s as if the writer has such little faith in his own abilities to hash out a decent narrative that he resorts to creating tension in a more artificial way. There are several minor revelations at the end of chapters that would fit in nicely before an ad break (“I’m his brother” dun dun duh *cut to toothpaste ad*). There is an ever present sense of secrecy and ambiguity that never really pays off. Koch will jump back and forth in time, slowly revealing more hidden details, until the narrator finally reveals the ‘truth’ (or at least the truth that he is willing to reveal). Rather than neatly building the tension until the horrific revelation, everything just ends up falling short of the readers’ expectations: ultimately the novel feels more than a little shallow.
That being said, I won’t completely discount The Dinner. I think, had I not made the subconscious decision to finish the whole thing before bed, I would have finished the book properly. I’m sure at 1 am it’d be difficult for most people to give much of a shit about this guy’s endless flashbacks. This earlier novel has the benefits of a much clearer structure than Summer House and a clearer storyline. It doesn’t have the punch of works like We Need to Talk About Kevin but it is entertaining and fast-paced. It scrapes the surface of some key social points and suits any reader who enjoys witnessing the cracking facade of these supposedly happy middle-class families.
However, all this just means that it’s more frustrating that there is so much potential within Koch’s work. There are moments of sheer literary joy and, within his pages of superfluous prose, there are fantastic one-liners to take away. With his affectless and misanthropic narrator, Koch is well on his way to a decent novel. However, thanks to a fair few crucial narrative decisions The Dinner becomes nothing more than a superficial tale from a writer who would perhaps be better suited to writing for a more visual outlet.