“When people get a chance to come close to a death without having it touch them personally, they never miss the opportunity.” – Herman Koch, The Dinner
Herman Koch’s The Dinner is a contradiction of sorts. The reader never knows what will happen next; explosively unreliable main characters weave a complicated tale of trust, mental health, anger, and sacrifice as the layers covering the climactic crime are removed piece by piece. However, the novel’s structure, being that of a dinner course, tells the reader exactly what will happen next. Aperitif, Appetizer, Main Course, Dessert, Digestif.
As a reader, I enjoyed the continuous return to the scene at the dining table at the fancy restaurant with a seven month wait that will be no problem at all, sir, for Mr. Lohman, with the manager who’s pinky hovers centimeters over the food as he describes the origins of the olives or the happy upbringing of the cow itself. “We were going out to dinner.” A simple phrase, really, but in the grand scheme of the politics of protecting the ones you love, the characters involved knew the dinner would be much more than that.
The Lohman brothers, Serge and Paul, portray an interesting dynamic. Serge is built up as the lying, obtuse politician throughout the novel, while Paul, the narrator, slowly opens up to the reader about his past with mental illness. The reader thus must make an important decision: are these stories told by Paul Lohman reliable?
Claire is the driving force. She loves Paul, she understands him. She has seen his darkest days and she is strong because of the hardships they have faced. She is the unwavering feminist icon in the novel.
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Claire’s character development was the most disappointing of all. Her turned cheek was not an act of heroism or motherly love. She was a coward covering up for a murderer. She fueled the mental illness that could very well be present in their son. She destroyed her brother-in-law. But without saying too much, without going too far, I will let you make your own judgment on Claire.
Babette Lohman, a whimsical damsel reminiscent of Daisy Buchanan, adds a glamor to the novel, but not enough to cover the stereotype she embodies perfectly. She is taken advantage of many times throughout the novel, both by the powerful male characters, her husband and brother-in-law, and surprisingly by the woman sitting opposite her at the dinner table: her sister-in-law. “Babette.. darling…“ Yet without the profuse emotional outbursts from this character, the dinner itself would have remained levelheaded and anticlimactic. Babette made the scenes work and the plot flow; Serge Lohman’s wife made the crimes committed in this novel possible.
These four characters play off each other’s weaknesses and thrive off of the other’s failures. They lie to get ahead and cheat when they realize they have lost. The Dinner is as much a crime thriller as it is emotional suspense depicting the downward spiral of sanity when trust falls apart within the family. Koch messes with the reader’s head, taunting unnamed streets and restaurants and a dead woman just out of the camera’s line of view–but that’s the real shock:
It could have been anywhere. It could have happened to anyone.
It could be happening all around you.