The Dinner by Herman Koch

books, Herman Koch, mental illness, review, violence
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 KevinThe 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.

The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

books, captivating, fantasy, fucking beautiful, mental illness, review

I first read about this book on Huffington Post months ago and I spent weeks searching every bookshop to track down a copy. Of course I could have just clicked a few buttons on a certain website but I’m trying to avoid it. By the time I actually found a copy IRL I was too far into The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August to finally sink my teeth in. Suffice it to say that I powered through that novel in order to finally read the book I’d been desperate to get my hands on. Every day beforehand, I was drawn to the beautiful, metallic cover art and prayed it would be as delightful as it sounded.

Rene Denfeld has spent the majority of her life working with the men convicted of serious crimes. In her first work of fiction, The Enchanted, she draws upon her experiences as a death row investigator to tell the story of a rundown American prison. Narrated by a nameless inmate, it brings together the interweaving stories of the many inmates and employees. The most prominent of these being the connected stories of York, a convict ready to face his fate; the lady, an investigator hired to get him off; and the disgraced priest she is drawn to and who is secretly falling in love with her.

The Enchanted is, without a doubt, a fucking beautifully written book. Denfeld is able to use the English language in such an mind-boggling way that even the horrific events that are being described seem wondrous. There is plenty of room to make comparisons with Alice Sebold and The Lovely Bones and the overall effect of the novel is equally haunting. Denfeld’s lyrical prose is some of the most exciting work I’ve read in a long time. I finished it a few days ago and I’ve already lost count of the people I’ve tried to force to read it. Seriously I cannot recommend this book enough. I’m fucking obsessed. 

Our narrator is an avid reader who uses the scant selection of books available to him to escape his current situation and the events that led to his incarceration. He finds the freedom that he both cannot achieve and cannot handle within the work of these author’s. Our convict has further removed himself from the atrocities of prison life by establishing himself in a fantastical world where golden horses run free, small men hammer in the walls and flibber gibbets feed off the warmth of death. Don’t worry if this all sounds a bit Roald Dhal to you: The Enchanted is kind of a mix between One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Green Mile.

The narrator uses his deep understanding of human nature and his handy omniscience to analyse the behaviour of the other inhabitants of the prison. Most importantly the convicted killer York who has agreed to give up his fight for reprieve and is ready to die. Unfortunately, the lady has been hired to do exactly the opposite of that. Through her investigation, the lady looks back over both York and her own difficult upbringings and asks the question of what determines the kind of person we will turn out to be. Her personal experiences allow her to see the person behind the horrible crime and understand some of the factors that push people into such despicable acts.

The Enchanted introduces us to that moral grey area between good and bad and asks the reader to decide who they should sympathise with. There is humanity amongst those who are guilt of carrying out the most inhumane acts and, vice versa, those in positions of power are easily corrupted. The Enchanted is dealing with identity and reality: the parts of themselves that people show and the parts that they keep hidden. Both the narrator and the lady have the ability to see beyond an unpleasant exterior and find the story and beauty hidden underneath.

Denfeld introduces us to some contemptible people and holds a mirror up to a corrupt and dangerous world of prison life. However, through her enthralling prose she shows us that there are two sides to every story.  We discover that no matter how clear someone’s tale may seem there is always something lurking beneath the surface to change everything. Nobody’s story is complete. Even stuck in the dark, damp dungeon, our narrator is able to use his imagination to transcend his miserable existence and become part of something exquisite. Once I’d entered the enchanted world I didn’t exactly find myself in a hurry to leave it.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

Bradley Cooper, dancing, Jennifer Lawrence, mental illness, review, Robert DeNiro

To quote Kate Winslet in the third episode of Ricky Gervais’ popular sitcom Extras, “you’re guaranteed an Oscar if you play a mental.” Bizarrely, in the case of Bradley Cooper in David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, that could very well be correct. For this isn’t your usual romantic-comedy. It’s about crazies so it’s got depth… supposedly.  For this film has been eaten up by critics and the Oscar voters alike as a refreshing and exciting new direction for the now incredibly stale genre. It is certainly the type of film that was bound to get plenty of attention during award season. I think we all have to be thankful that Russell’s follow-up to his Oscar nominated The Fighter wasn’t also set during World War 2 otherwise Cooper would be a certainty for the Academy Award for Best Actor. So it was in the midst of all this hype that audiences flocked to see two of Hollywood’s most bankable stars step into the quirky and thought-provoking world of mentally ill romantic-comedy. But could it live up to it?

Silver Linings Playbook follows the story of former teacher Pat who suffers a breakdown after he discovers his wife partaking in some afternoon delight with a colleague. We meet him after an eight month stint in psychiatric hospital where he was attempting to come to terms with bipolar disorder. Being removed from the facilities against the wishes of his doctors, he finds himself back in his childhood home with his mother Dolores (Jacki Weaver) and Pat Sr. (Robert DeNiro). He is keen to return to his old life and prove that he can stick to his new, positive outlook: to prove that he can find his ‘silver lining’.

Bradley Cooper cannot be described as the most subtle of actors but he brings a certain frenzied energy to some of Pat’s more manic episodes. All in all though his performance is pretty one-note. Pat is completely motivated by his delusional belief that he is cured and that proof of this will get his wife back. He is not the easiest character to root for and Cooper’s frantic, wide-eyed portrayal of a volatile man coming to terms with bipolar often becomes tedious and far too intense. It gets to the point when it almost doesn’t feel as if Pat’s bipolar is actually that big a deal. It just seems like it’s one of those silly little quirks that people have. Rather than being ill Pat simply has strong feelings about certain songs, is quick to anger and has an obsessive desire to look on the bright side. He doesn’t provide any real drama here and you can’t help but feel that he’d fit better in a Wes Anderson film than he does here.
Thankfully, to offset this, Pat and the audience are offered a certain amount of respite with the introduction of troubled widow Tiffany. Still coming to terms with the death of her husband, the young woman becomes fixated on Pat Jr. and orchestrates her way into get closer to him. She proposes a deal in which she gets messages to and from Pat’s wife (bypassing that pesky restraining) if he helps her take part in a charity dance competition. This premise all sounds rather silly and it often feels like Russell is trying a bit too hard to seem quirky and unusual. However, Jennifer Lawrence does remarkably well to bring us another incredible performance. She brings a depth and emotion to Tiffany that we never see anywhere in Cooper’s Pat. She may be close to him in terms of craziness but she definitely outclasses him on the sympathetic scale. You want Tiffany to succeed much more than you ever want Pat to. Lawrence also does a great job when interacting with the other cast and there are several moments, during which Tiffany attempts to out-crazy the two Pats, which are simply splendid. In fact, the big showdown between DeNiro and Lawrence is one of the stand-out moments of the whole show.
As with so many films of this type the best moments occur in the first 30 minutes or so. This is thanks to the comic potential garnered from Pat’s transition from hospital to the big wide world. There is a great deal of glee to be had in his ruthless honesty and the discomfort it creates for everyone else. Even Cooper’s bull-in-a-china-shop style performance provides some great moments, such as his sudden insistence that he must work his way through his estranged wife’s literature syllabus before deeming it to be full of damaging messages about life. However, the narrative quickly changes pace when Tiffany is introduced and it becomes painfully clear what is about to happen. We move into obvious and stereotypical romantic-comedy territory with everyone’s future happiness becoming linked to the outcome of a football game and the dance competition. The unusual premise that had a great deal of potential quickly descends into something quite forgettable and frustratingly usual. This film doesn’t reinvent the genre, as so many critics would have you believe, it simply adds some mentally unstable characters into a narrative that even the laziest rom-com writers would reject.
Anyway, being surrounded by this many neurotic and eccentric characters, even Pat and Tiffany don’t really seem that outrageous. The supporting cast itself is fairly hit and miss with both DeNiro and Weaver doing the best they can with the material that is being offered to them. DeNiro in particular does a fine job considering he flits between an emotional father trying to reconnect with his son and a farcical version of a man suffering from OCD and a dependency on sporting superstition. The more sentimental moments between the two Pats show that DeNiro still has a great deal to offer but Pat Sr.’s more exaggerated moments played out for comic gain become fairly tiresome. Another brief shining light comes in the form of Chris Tucker’s (I know it confused me too) Danny, Pat’s friend from the hospital. Danny isn’t really important to the plot so he is simply played for comic effect.
I can’t say that I didn’t like this film but, like Black Sawn, it credits itself with more intelligence than it actually possesses. It offers a great deal that it simply never lives up to. You cannot create a new and interesting perspective on this genre by just adding characters suffering from different mental illnesses into a completely bland situation. If these characters had no psychiatric problems this film would have been brushed off as a pathetic affair but, as it stands, all Hollywood needs is a bit of bipolar and OCD to create a masterpiece. We are being lead to believe this is One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest meets When Harry Met Sally but the actual results is as corny, contrived and over-sentimental as even the worst Jennifer Aniston rom-com. If it wins any of the many awards it has been nominated for it just goes to show Hollywood is as shallow and predictable as Ricky Gervais accuses it of being.