The Dinner, by Herman Koch

The DinnerWell, this was a book. A book I had no intention of reading, but then my book club picked it and I was in a reading slump with literally nothing else I was interested in and I figured, hey, maybe this will get me consuming books again. And it did, so plus ten points to my book club on that one?

But the book itself? Blergh. I had one of those strange reading experiences where I wanted to know what the heck was going on, so I was turning pages rapidly and taking very few breaks from reading… but I was not really enjoying the experience. Sure, I was curious how everything was going to turn out, but I didn’t actually care about the plot or the characters or anything in the book.

This is probably partially by design — the book is written in a close first person that gives no details about anything useful and all the details about the things that don’t matter, because that’s what the narrator wants to focus on.

The book takes place over the course of the titular dinner, with scenes from the dinner interspersed with flashbacks to earlier that evening, earlier that year, and earlier in various relationships that give varying degrees of context to the dinner at hand. At the beginning, all you really know is that a dude doesn’t want to go out to dinner with his brother; at the end there are far more pressing concerns about everyone at the table.

It’s a neat conceit, I’ll admit, and that conceit is definitely what kept me flipping pages. How is this detail going to come into play later? Does this seemingly throwaway sentence have greater import? How is the narrator going to reconcile this situation he’s describing with the life he thinks he’s living?

But the problem is, I didn’t really care about the narrator. He seems set up to be an unlikeable narrator, and I’ve seen this book compared to books like Gone Girl in that regard, but he is so completely detached from the unlikeable things that he does that I just can’t muster up feelings for him either way. I would love to hate him. But I don’t. Ditto for every other character in the book.

As often happens in cases like this, going to book club was helpful for increasing my respect for the book, if not my enjoyment of it. One of the more interesting things I picked up was a perspective on the book from someone who is a little bit obsessed with the Netherlands (the book is set there and translated from the Dutch). There is a particular event that this book, and the dinner itself, centers on, and it’s kind of weird, but my friend pointed out some social norms and policies that are different in the Netherlands that make the event, and the characters’ reactions to the event, make far more sense. So therefore I’m going to chalk up all the other things I didn’t understand to the cultural gulf between me and Holland.

So, yeah. It’s an interesting book to read, style-wise, but I wish the style had been wrapped around, say, any other story. Not the greatest book to kick off 2016 with, but it definitely inspired me to get reading and get some better books in my brain! Any suggestions for the year?

Recommendation: For fans of style over substance, Dutch-ness, and weird people doing very weird things.

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4 thoughts on “The Dinner, by Herman Koch

  1. jenkoudelka says:

    Thus far one of my favorites of this year has been Confessions by Kanae Minato. It’s a Japanese suspense/murder mystery/revenge story that begins with a homeroom teacher giving a speech to her students and revealing that two of them murdered her 4 year old daughter. It took me a bit of time to get used to the cultural Japanese feeling of the book, but I found it fascinating. It’s bonkers and every character is weirdly messed up.

  2. Symone Books says:

    I’ve also read this book and I had similar thoughts! The idea of the book taking place over one meal seemed really cool and fresh, but the execution left a lot to be desired for me. And the more I thought about it, the more unrealistic it seemed. Luckily I didn’t buy that book or anything. It was mediocre but when it comes to mysteries I have to know what’s happening so I finished it.

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