THE DINNER. By Herman Koch. Hogarth. 292 pages. $24.
Herman Koch’s international best-seller, “The Dinner,” takes place, as the title suggests, over the courses of a dinner, with interludes away from the table and excursions in flashback.
Koch convenes two couples, brothers Paul and Serge Lohman and their wives, Claire and Babette, at a swanky Amsterdam establishment where they are set to discuss their 15-year-old sons, Michel and Rick.
The boys, we learn early in the novel, have committed a ghastly act that was captured in grainy film footage. So far, although the clip has gone viral, no one has identified them as the culprits. But their parents know.
In interviews, Koch has said that the motivating question behind the novel is, “How far would you go to protect your family?”
The question begs a kind of identification with these characters and especially with Paul, the narrator, that’s hard to muster.
Koch has given us a repulsive narrator, a nasty crime and a book that delivers less than it promises. Whether moral investigation, cultural critique, psychological thriller, domestic tragedy, or rehash of the old nature /nurture debates, “The Dinner” is a slick, unsatisfying production.
The dinner in question takes readers through a staged series of disclosures. Like the tiny portions on Claire’s plate (“you have voids and then you have voids”), a vast ground of secrecy surrounds chunky bits of information.
When he first saw the video, Paul vowed to “start forgetting.” Throughout the dinner, it’s clear that he and Claire also have taken a vow to rewrite the script.
Michel and Rick are involved in an “accident, an unfortunate series of events,” not a crime. There’s no such thing as an innocent victim; the boys’ victim was not “a poor little bird, a fledgling pushed out of the nest.” Instead, it’s the boys’ innocence that needs protecting: “We don’t have the right to take away their childhood, simply because, according to our norms, as adults, it’s a crime.”
Paul’s voice is dedicated to inverting reality. From the beginning, it’s clear that his perspective will always be skewed by spite and resentment.
“The Dinner” gradually fills in the details of his monstrosity, even as it circles around issues of innocence and evil, accident and intention.
Escalating revelations in the novel’s final pages pack a punch, but they don’t shock the system. Paul and his family just become more fully what they are, no surprises there.
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.