Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. The context of a story can play a crucial role in its atmosphere and in the way the plot plays out. Let’s take a look at one particular story context today and turn the spotlight on Herman Koch’s The Dinner.
The context for this novel is a dinner at an exclusive Amsterdam restaurant – the kind where reservations have to be made months in advance. One night, two couples, Paul and Claire Lohman, and Paul’s older brother Serge and his wife Babette, meet there for dinner. On the surface, they seem like any other set of middle- to upper-middle-class people: Serge Lohman is a successful politician who seems poised for real achievement; his brother is a former teacher who’s retired for medical reasons. The couples greet each other and the dinner begins.
As the meal goes on, we learn that these people are not at all what they seem. Bit by bit, course by course, the backstories of the four diners are revealed. We find out some very uncomfortable truths about them and their relationships to one another. Also revealed is a terrible secret that they are keeping. Paul and Claire’s fifteen-year-old son, Michel, and Serge and Babette’s son, Rick, also fifteen, are guilty of a terrible crime. The police are investigating, and now the families have to face the truth about what’s happened. In fact, that turns out to be the reason they’re dining at this restaurant in the first place. They’ve met to decide what to do about what’s happened. That discussion, and its result, has its own consequences.
The story unfolds as the meal does, and the different sections of the novel are named for the different courses (e.g. aperitif, main course, dessert). And if you think about it strictly chronologically, the novel begins as the meal does, and ends shortly after it does. That context gives the novel what you might call a sense of claustrophobia.
But this novel isn’t really chronological. The story is told from the point of view of Paul Lohman (more about his character shortly), and his way of telling it includes many flashbacks and streams of consciousness. Readers who prefer a strictly linear story, with a clear sequence of events, will notice this.
That approach to telling the story gives readers quite a lot of insight into what the characters are like. And it’s soon clear that they’re very dysfunctional. Each of them has serious flaws that play their part in what happens in the novel. For example, Serge is both pompous and a social climber. One of his main concerns is his image. Paul’s retirement from teaching wasn’t for a physical reason. Rather, it was ‘difficulty managing his anger.’ Other ugly things about each diner are also revealed. And all four of them are, in their way, complicit in what’s happened. Readers who prefer stories with at least one likeable character will notice this.
Since the story is told from Paul Lohman’s point of view, in first person, we get to know quite a bit about him. And it’s not long before we learn that he is probably not a reliable narrator. In fact, he indulges in his share of denial about his role in what led up to the awful crime that’s at the heart of the novel. Through Paul’s eyes, we see the superficiality and consumerism of upper middle class Dutch society. There’s also a critique of and a disturbing look at that group’s racism and ethnocentrism. Or is that critique really Paul’s view? Does he subscribe to these opinions? Readers who enjoy unreliable narrators, and trying to work out what is actually true and what isn’t, will appreciate this.
One of the questions the novel raises has to do with parents’ responsibility for their children. What the Lohman cousins have done is horrible. So on one level, most people would agree they should face justice immediately. But the boys are still their parents’ sons. To what extent should their parents protect them? Isn’t it natural for parents to want to keep their children out of legal trouble? But if they do, isn’t that tacit approval of what they boys have done? And where did the boys learn their attitudes, anyway? The issue of what parents should be expected to do when their children commit crimes is not an easy one.
This is a noir story, and that element is an important part of the novel. The main characters are not nice, or particularly trustworthy, people, and that includes the narrator. We learn what happened, so in that sense, the story has a kind of resolution. But it doesn’t have a very hopeful ending. And one more note is in order here. The crime that’s so important to this story is an ugly one, and Koch doesn’t mince words. Readers who prefer their crime-fictional violence to be ‘off stage’ will notice this. What’s even more unsettling is the reaction of the boys’ parents to everything. The result is a story that doesn’t offer an optimistic outlook on life.
There is, however, dark wit in the novel. In several places, Paul Lohman makes observations about the pretensions of very upmarket restaurants and the people who frequent them. There is also dark wit about the Dutch culture. It isn’t really upbeat, joking sort of wit, though, and is in keeping with the noir nature of the novel.
The Dinner is the noir story of two sets of parents forced to face the reality of what their sons have done. It reveals the dark and dysfunctional side of family relations, and offers a barbed look at life in modern-day upmarket Amsterdam. It’s also got a singular and somewhat claustrophobic context. But what’s your view? Have you read The Dinner? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 22 August/Tuesday, 23 August – Big Little Lies – Liane Moriarty
Monday, 29 August/Tuesday, 30 August – The Last Child – John Hart
Monday, 5 September/Tuesday, 6 September – The Last Act of All – Aline Templeton