The dinner in ‘The Dinner’ takes place in the kind of restaurant that only serves the most precious slivers of food. Nonetheless, even the most ravenous of the eaters is full by the end. It’s the perfect frame for this small, fast paced and utterly satisfying tale of twisted families and violence.
I read this book purely because it happened to be on my friend’s bookshelf and I’d been seeing ‘Summer House with a Swimming Pool’, Koch’s most recent novel to be translated into English, prominently displayed in every bookshop I visited. In other words, I had no idea what I was letting myself in for.
‘The Dinner’ is a wonderfully poisonous little story. It’s been compared to ‘Gone Girl’ in several reviews, but I’d call for comparisons with Muriel Spark as much as Gillian Flynn. Suffice to say, if you like your literature to play with the dark side of human nature, you will find a lot to love in this novel.
The story is narrated by Paul, and I liked him from the start. He’s quick to poke fun at the man they are meeting in the restaurant, Serge who, in ‘a cafe where a lot of ordinary people went … would walk in … like a regular guy, with a grin on his face that said that all those ordinary people should go on talking and act as though he wasn’t there.’ He also earns Brownie points for his devotion to his wife: ‘Claire is smarter than I am. I’m not saying that out of some half-baked feminist sentiment or in order to endear women to me. You’ll never hear me claiming that “women in general” are smarter than men. Or more sensitive, more intuitive, that they are more “in touch with life” or any of the other horseshit that, when all is said and done, so-called sensitive men try to peddle more often than women themselves. Claire just happens to be smarter than I am.’
With these extremes of loathing and love, the novel consistently teeters on the edge of catastrophe. From the start, there’s tension between the two married couples who are eating together at short notice. Also, there is a slowly revealed story about Paul’s son Michael and something stored on his mobile phone. This could be generic, repressed, middle class angst were it not for Paul himself. Like I said, I enjoyed his sarcastic and pointed narrative, but, increasingly, the level of bile becomes intrusive. Is Serge as loathsome as Paul maintains? Why does it sometimes feel like Paul’s hate is aimed at just about everyone around him? Is the violence he appears to be holding in maybe a little excessive?
The answers are complicated, not least because some things seem to be true. Paul is devoted to Claire and Serge is indeed pretty irritating. The darkness of the narrative however is not restricted to snide comments about waiters and the violence is not less frightening for being rigorously contained. Paul attacks society with sometimes valid, sometimes uncomfortable and sometimes down right dubious criticism. As the dinner continues, the tension mounts; meanwhile, alternate chapters give background information and memories that do nothing to calm the pace.
You’ll have to read the book yourself to find out what Serge really wanted to discuss during dinner, and how his companions ultimately respond. Then, if you’re like me, you have to restrain yourself from running out to buy ‘Summer House with a Swimming Pool.’ If it’s anything like ‘The Dinner’ it will be a wonderfully twisted literary treat.