“We need to talk about our children.”
This line in Herman Koch's The Dinner comes after the cocktail and the appetizer, before the arrival of the main course. Before these words are spoken, the reader would be forgiven for thinking they were reading a satire of foodie culture, of the people who think by paying 28 euro for a locally sourced, grass fed, artisanally aged cheese they are helping to save the world, of spending several minutes photographing your food to document your meal while it slowly grows cold. But with those words, The Dinner takes a sinister turn.
The story takes place over one meal, the book divided up by course. The four people at the dinner table are Serge Lohman, on track to become the next prime minister of the Netherlands and the speaker of those ominous words, his wife Babette, and Serge's brother Paul and his wife Claire. Serge is a politician of our celebrity-obsessed age–handsome and charismatic, more campaign poster than policy wonk. Paul is the intelligent and hilariously biting misanthrope narrating this story, and he remains mostly a blank slate until the wine and the circumstances unloose his tongue and all his unpleasant insides come spilling out.
Because those teenaged kids, the son of Paul and Claire and the biological son and adopted son–from Africa, maybe only so their ethnically rich family will look good at the television interview–did something hideous. And not only that, they filmed it and put it up on YouTube. Now a homeless woman is dead and the parents have gathered to discuss what is to be done. Do they turn their sons into the police? Or do they protect their children, and Serge's career, by keeping quiet and not revealing the identities of the shadowy figures in the security footage that is replayed on the nightly news again and again.
Before that moment when the tone of the book changes from darkly funny to just dark, Koch cleverly gets us on Paul's side by skewering exactly what needs to be skewered: the self-important organic food movement, the pretensions of the upper middle class, the hypocrisy of “family focused” politicians. Paul is something of a nastier Larry David, saying the things we're all thinking, as he assails his brother for his “man of the people” routine. But the stories he tells get darker and darker, until his violent temper emerges. Stories of self-righteous indignation become stories of assault and battery. In an email exchange with Koch, he told me about the moment when he realized his own creation was a bit more out of control than he had originally planned. “There was a point…where [Paul] was still only fantasizing about using violence (like we all might do at a certain stage), and then it occurred to me that he should cross the line and act on it as well,” Koch says. “From that point on we, the readers, start to lose him. Although I receive mail from time to time from readers who say: 'Finally a protagonist who actually does what we are all thinking!' They belong to a minority, I can assure you, but still...”
Koch lives in Amsterdam, as does his story, but the setting could be any urban area in Europe or North America. The Dinner smoothly takes on the contemporary political environment–from politicians earning votes through demonizing their Muslim immigrant populations, to the fear of disillusioned teenaged boys becoming sociopathic mass murderers–without being diatribe or polemic. That must be why it's become such a runaway hit, selling swiftly across Europe and translated into a dozen different languages, here rendered into a mercurial English by Sam Garrett. It unfolds to reveal so many anxieties of our age, including that age-old anxiety of parenting, of getting it wrong and creating a monster, or of giving birth to someone you can't even recognize.
Later on in The Dinner, Koch reveals that Paul may have some sort of neurological disorder underpinning his inability to control his impulses, and the father fears he is to blame for Michel's violent streak. “[Paul] feels even more 'biologically' responsible for his son than a 'normal' parent,” Koch explains. “Even more important than if he has inherited this disorder is for Michel that he has seen his father losing control on more than one occasion, and from a very early age. It is mentioned nowhere in the book, but for me personally Michel feels he has to protect his father against his own temper/disorder.”
And so the sins of the father... The mothers remain mostly unknown to the reader. Claire never really manages to be anything other than supportive and defensive about her son, and she is such a blank face to us that her final words and actions seem more plot device than a natural extension of who she is. (Koch also seemed unsure who Claire was, writing to me that, “She is the kind of mother who unconditionally supports everything her son does.” That's more of a motherly stereotype than a character.)
But we can forgive The Dinner its faults. It's packed densely, so much turmoil over such small servings of organically grown, heirloom varietal grapes and biodynamic wine. It's not built to be lingered over leisurely, but shoved quickly down your gullet. Just beware of the damage it's doing on its way down.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.