Okay, horrible, nasty people. Grouchy convalescents. Thieves and murderers. Third-party voters. Have I got a book for you!
My imaginary friend Nancy sent me The Dinner by Herman Koch (translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett) as a present after reading about how horrible I was feeling during my protracted convalescence after knee surgery, and how surly reading about too-nice-to-be-true characters like the ones in A Man Called Ove was making me feel. This book calmed me right down, much the way my best friend in high school used to do it (“Jeanne,” she would say, pulling me down to her eye level and looking intensely into my eyes for a minute before intoning, “God hates you.” This used to kind of, you know, um, put things into better perspective). This book came with a handwritten note warning me that “the people in this book are all awful.”
The Dinner takes place during the course (and courses) of a fancy restaurant dinner for four. It is narrated by a man named Paul who is having dinner with his wife, Claire, his sister-in-law, Babette, and his brother, Serge, who is a famous politician. The narrator himself, we find out, was formerly employed as a teacher but let go because of a psychiatric condition, one that turns out to be inheritable (at least according to the narrator, who we cannot trust at all).
At first we think the narrator’s resentment of his brother’s fame might be warranted, especially because we recognize the type:
“You have big politicos who like to work in the kitchen, who collect old comic books or have a wooden boat they’ve fixed up all by themselves. The hobby they choose usually clashes entirely with the face that goes with it, going completely against the grain of what everyone has made of them till then. The worst stick-in-the-mud, someone with all the charisma of a sheet of cardboard, suddenly turns out to cook splendid French meals at home in his free time; the next weekend supplement of the national newspaper features him in full color on the cover, his knitted oven mitts holding up a casserole filled with Provencal meatloaf. The most striking thing about the stick-in-the-mud, besides his apron with a reproduction of a Toulouse-Lautrec poster, is his completely implausible smile, meant to convey the joy of cooking to his constituency.”
Soon, though, we begin to suspect that something is not quite right. Maybe it’s the convoluted thought process the narrator reveals in telling us why he ordered the “warm goat’s cheese with lamb’s lettuce” as an appetizer, even though he reveals that he doesn’t like goat’s cheese. Maybe it’s his reaction to being invited to his brother’s summer home in the Dordogne, where, he says:
“I thought about Straw Dogs and Deliverance, films that come to mind whenever I am out in the sticks, but never more than here, in the Dordogne, on the hilltop where my brother and his wife had created what they called ‘their little French paradise.’ In Straw Dogs, the local population—after limiting themselves at first to a little badgering—take horrible revenge on the newcomers who think they’ve bought a cute little house in the English countryside. In Deliverance, it’s the American hillbillies who rudely interrupt a group of city slickers on a canoeing trip. Rape and murder feature prominently in both films.”
Definitely we know something is off when we get the narrator’s—and his wife’s—lack of reaction to recognizing their son Michel as one of the boys caught on a video that is being shown on the news; the boys are setting a homeless woman on fire.
We begin to learn how Paul has taught his son that it’s perfectly all right to indulge in what any sane person would call unwarranted and over-the-top displays of homicidal rage. We get more details about the horrific crime Michel has committed, along with his cousin, Serge’s son. And then we start to realize that another crime is occurring while the desserts are being served, and that no one around this table deserves any of our sympathy.
As readers, we almost start to see the narrator’s point, the point he was trying to make in the rant that results in him being let go from his job as a history teacher:
“In a group of one hundred people, how many assholes are there? How many fathers who humiliate their children? How many morons whose breath stinks like rotten meat but who refuse to do anything about it? How many hopeless cases who go on complaining all their lives about the nonexistent injustices they’ve had to suffer? Look around you, I said. How many of your classmates would you be pleased not to see return to their desks tomorrow morning? Think about that one member of your own family, that irritating uncle with his pointless horseshit stories at birthday parties, that ugly cousin who mistreats his cat. Think about how relieved you would be—and not only you, but virtually the entire family—if that uncle or cousin would step on a land mine or be hit by a five-hundred-pounder dropped from a high altitude.”
But because the narrator of this book is so awful, readers learn to resist his point of view. And that’s a good thing, especially in this post-election world. So try reading The Dinner when you are feeling misanthropic, mean, and miserable. I did, and it was a transformative experience–who can feel all that terrible in the middle of realizing that the person through whose eyes she is seeing is truly quite terrible? Not me! Thanks, Nancy!