Forget last night's romantic gorge-fest at Roberta's; not all dinners are pleasant. Herman Koch’s The
Dinner, an immense bestseller in Europe that's at last making waves on
American shores, chronicles the meeting of two couples for dinner. But this is not a comedy of manners. The four adults have come together
because of their children — and a horrific act the kids have committed. Every line moves us closer to the elephant in the room; I couldn't turn the pages fast enough. Even the longueurs catch our attention: “When the
conversation turns too quickly to films,” the narrator says, “I always get a
sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.” Film had to be mentioned, I thought as I read. The story moves like a great nail-biting movie — one that just happened to be captured in prose.
How? Here are a few of the celluloid ingredients Koch used to make his chef-d’oeuvre.
Claire’s eyes were fixed on something a long way behind me: at the entrance to
"Here they come," she said.
Nearly every section ends on a cliffhanger, referencing a fact or a scene not yet revealed. And each new piece of information reframes the previous pages in a completely new light — a trick Christopher Nolan took to new heights with Memento.
They belonged to that class of Dutch people who think everything French is "great"...
Even as one couple disdains the nouveau-riche excesses of the other couple, the other remains dumbstruck by the children’s horrible act against yet another class. The book's social commentary is delivered via first-person narration that echoes Jeremy Irons's extensive voice-overs in the 1981 miniseries Brideshead Revisited.
I needed to stay calm, I told myself. I had to listen. I remembered now that Michel had said I wasn't listening. "Okay, I'm all ears," I said.
The tensions within and between the two couples are underscored by the inherent unreliability of the narrator's perspective; we're never sure what's being seen and heard, what's being overlooked either accidentally or on purpose. I felt every bit as off-kilter as when I watched Lars von Trier's Melancholia, where the camera was so shaky I almost reached for some Dramamine.
In all his movements he was suddenly the national politician again, the shoo-in to be our country’s next leader.
As the narrative remains focused on the four people around the dinner table, and the crime at hand, it becomes increasingly clear that one of the men has great political aspirations and wants to protect their secret at nearly any cost. As the potential ramifications unfurl, I was reminded of the opening scene of Goodfellas, where a two-and-a-half-minute long tracking shot shows the greater context of a single couple's meal.
No, it was a very subtle something in her eyes, a shift invisible to the uninitiated, something between mockery and sudden earnest.
"Don’t," the look said.
Did I mention The Dinner’s riveting storyline? Its devious accretion of telling details turns us into the investigators who must uncover the crime. We are the Clarice Starlings in a story every bit as engrossing as The Silence of the Lambs — careening toward a denouement that promises to be just as shocking.
So go ahead and sit down. With a book that so masterfully draws on cinematic storytelling techniques, you'll devour the story and lick your lips afterwards.