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'The Dinner' Offers Food For Thought

Feb 20, 2013
Originally published on February 20, 2013 6:11 pm

Food doesn't matter much in novels. Years will pass in a person's life without a single description of a snack. Not a moment between adverbs for a taco. No wonder so many characters in contemporary fiction are glum: They're not hopeless; they're hungry.

In his new book, The Dinner, Dutch author Herman Koch structures his entire plot around a five-course meal, going from aperitif to digestif. The novel was originally published in the Netherlands in 2009 and went on to become an international best-seller. It's the story of two couples meeting for dinner in a sophisticated Amsterdam restaurant, the type of place where every item on the menu practically comes with a birth certificate, and in very small portions. As Koch writes, "The first thing that struck you about Claire's plate was the vast emptiness. Of course I'm well aware that, in the better restaurants, quality takes precedence over quantity, but you have voids and then you have voids. The void here, that part of the plate on which no food at all was present, had clearly been raised to a matter of principle."

But all the eating is cover for nasty events. The four people at the table, two brothers and their wives, have come together for an uncomfortable conversation. One of the brothers is a famous politician. The other is a retired teacher. They don't get along, but their sons do, and it turns out the boys have done something awful. Something so upsetting it has shocked the entire nation after footage of their crime turned up on the nightly news. However, the video did not show the boys' faces, leaving them anonymous for the moment, and now their parents must decide what to do next.

I won't explain what happens after that. Half the pleasure of reading The Dinner is feeling the author's steady hand on the story as secrets are revealed. What he puts forward is not only possible, but frighteningly probable. It's also very contemporary, in terms of the ways that smartphones and the Internet can bring people together, and also push them apart. Many novelists are afraid to write about the evolving social customs of our digital world. They treat YouTube and text messages as communications of some exotic tribe. Here, Koch treats them as mundane aspects of our lives, as they deserve, and as tools — for good or for evil.

Which leads me to the second reason why I so enjoyed this novel. The Dinner is an alarming drama. What these boys have done is grotesque, but not alien. Their crime could take place in Nebraska as easily as the Netherlands. But it's their parents' behavior that's even more chilling. By dessert, characters that I sympathized with during the appetizer course begin doing things, saying things, that are not only — and forgive the pun — unpalatable to me, but unconscionable, and I had to wrestle with what I would have done in their place.

The best part about The Dinner was this tension taking place above the plates. As the meal wore on, I realized I couldn't get up from the table.

Rosecrans Baldwin's latest book is Paris I Love You but You're Bringing Me Down.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Now, something to whet your appetite for reading. It's a novel structured around a five-course meal, from aperitif to digestif. This is not your average evening meal, as we hear from reviewer Rosecrans Baldwin.

ROSECRANS BALDWIN, BYLINE: In most books, eating doesn't matter. Years can pass in someone's life, and we don't hear about the meals. We don't even hear about the snacks. But that's not true in "The Dinner," by Herman Koch. The book was originally published in the Netherlands and this month, it's coming out in the U.S. It's the story of two brothers and their wives meeting for dinner. The restaurant is one of those super-sophisticated places - overpriced champagne, guinea fowl wrapped in bacon; that kind of thing. And of course, the portions are tiny. At one point, the narrator describes his wife's dinner like this:

(Reading) The first thing that struck you about Claire's plate was its vast emptiness. Of course, I'm well aware that in the better restaurants, quality takes precedence over quantity. But you have voids, and then you have voids.

But the fancy dinner is a cover. What's actually going on is much more nasty. One of the men is a famous politician; the other is a retired teacher. They don't get along but their sons do, and over the course of the meal, you realize the boys have done something terrible. It's so upsetting, it showed up on the news and the whole country is shocked. But in the video, the boys' faces are hard to see, so they might be safe for now. The parents are at this dinner to decide what to do next. I won't explain the rest of the book. The secrets are half the fun. But I will say one of the reasons it's so chilling is that it seems like it could really happen.

What the boys did is grotesque, but it's not impossible. And even worse, the parents - by dessert, they're saying and doing things that are so horrifying, they're almost unpalatable; and I wrestled with what I would have done if I were them.

The best part about "The Dinner" was this tension taking place above the plates. As the meal wore on, I realized I couldn't get up from the table.

BLOCK: The new novel is called "The Dinner," by Herman Koch. It was reviewed by Rosecrans Baldwin. His latest book is called "Paris, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down." You can find more reading recommendations at NPRBooks.org.

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BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.