Sunday, March 3, 2013

Deception ("The Dinner" by Herman Koch)

Dinners--full, multi-course meals from appetizers to desserts, like the one depicted in Herman Koch's newest novel--are an easy plot device used to keep characters in one location for the duration of a story. After all, a restaurant is a cramped, public place where all those who visit must do so wearing the masks that come with being among others; social contracts kick in, and comfortable informality is displaced for pomp and respectability, regardless of how the people may act beyond the restaurant's walls. It's that same forced, almost inevitable change in personality that can provide your story with the impulses that move it forward--after all, masks cannot remain forever, slowly but surely causing the wearer to sweat and itch with discomfort, their skin wanting relief from being hidden behind something so strange, foreign, and uncomfortable. Give it enough time--and make the dinner last long enough, especially under the right outside pressures--and information is bound to reveal itself with the same mouth-watering deliciousness as the next course.

However, an author could just as easily send his or her characters somewhere else public--a theatre, perhaps, or a museum, school, or church. But it's only the restaurant that forces its people to stay sitting--after all, there is other food on its way, food you've already ordered and must eventually pay for--while also forcing them to interact with one another. In a theatre, characters have a distraction, one that cannot--and should not, according to the social contract--be interrupted. Likewise in a museum, school--where others are in charge, unlike customers in a restaurant--church, or any other public place, there are rules that prevent intense, mask-breaking conversation. In a restaurant, characters stay because, really, they must. On top of this--and perhaps the greatest benefit to setting a story in a restaurant--is the inherit metaphor in a dinner: you begin light, with drinks and a sparse salad or basket of bread, nothing too severe or challenging. As the dinner progresses, however, and the courses become more heavy and complex--more expensive--you can also push your characters to reveal more. The conflict should come with the main course--after all, its the focus of the entire outing, the one plate that will last the longest and fill you up more than any other--and only at the dessert, so unnecessary yet paradoxically so needed, so unhealthy and yet so unstoppable, can you finally resolve those same conflicts, can the dinner--the physical and metaphorical meal--end. And, as is the case, dessert almost always ends a meal on a note of satisfaction and accomplishment.

In The Dinner, Herman Koch utilizes every single aspect of dinners and restaurants to build suspense over what seems like an innocent prank committed by two teenage boys, who also happen to be cousins. The four main characters--the narrator and his wife, the narrator's brother and his wife--meet over dinner at a lavish restaurant in Holland for what should be a simple gathering of concerned parents. Over the next 300 pages, however, we watch the same four men and women slowly, subtly change, not by becoming new people, but by removing their masks and revealing to us who they really are. In the first few pages, our narrator is quick to reveal his bitter personality, especially where his brother--a future prime minister, we soon learn--is concerned. He seems petty and jealous, but no more than one sibling in relation to his much more successful--and possibly arrogant--brother. His wife, who we soon meet, is incredibly sweet and good natured, and their 15-year-old son is spoken of as the apple in both their eyes...and there is little reason for us to believe otherwise. When the brother and his wife appear, they match what we've already been told: they are influential to be sure, as the narrator is want to remind us time and time again, and his actions especially speak to someone overconfident in himself and his renown. By the end of the dinner, however, our feelings about all four will change dramatically, and its Koch's skill in depicting these transformations that gives The Dinner its richness.

Over the course of 300 pages--and over the various courses of the titular dinner, which also serve to organize the book's many chapters--we watch as the narrator and his wife show us just how ugly they both are beyond the initial petty smirks and winks. At the same time, the brother and his wife break down and reveal a common humanity that both the narrator and his wife, much to our disbelief, not only lack but seem to relish in lacking. They are not a modest couple living in the shadows of their fellow diners and family members; instead, they are sly, conniving, and ruthless, never moreso when on the subject of their son Michel, a boy who at first seems to be an innocent victim. In committing an impulsive and thoughtless prank, he and his cousin kill a homeless woman and wind up on television, albeit anonymously in grainy security-camera footage--a deep irony considering the social contracts and public attention the four parents must now contend with in the process of solving this very public crime.

Michel is portrayed by his parents as a typical teenager who goes too far, makes a hideous mistake, and should be given a chance to atone; why make his life worse, his father offers us, when he has so much time to make his life better? By the end of the novel, however, we come to understand that the source of Michel's actions, not to mention his subsequent offenses, all of which he's recorded and preserved in one way or another, is not in hormones or family problems or the naivety of a teenage mind. Rather, Michel is the spitting image of his own father who, by the novel's close, has discussed at least a half-dozen instances in which he's given in to his vengeful temper and lashed out at those around him--a bike-shop owner, a principal, the same brother he now dines with. More often than not, he has done so in front of his son, so much so that by the time he's recounting his last outburst--a school principal concerned with Michel's heartless essay on capital punishment--the narrator recounts with little self-awareness how he paused mid-beating to wave at his son out a window. Even more horrifying, this recollection--which is remembered with a hint of pride on the narrator's part--is offered to us at the same time the narrator's wife, Michel's mother, is taking up this habit to save her son from a life in prison, and the object of her wrath is none other than the brother-in-law who might someday be in a position of extreme power, influence, and scrutiny.

In reading The Dinner, I was reminded of another book, though one in many ways different than Koch's: Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin. An epistolary novel in which a mother writes to her estranged husband about their son, who shot up his school, in the hopes of figuring out why their son behaved the way he did, Shriver's book bears many thematic similarities to Koch's, especially in how we the reader gradually begin to see the inner workings of a parent who is suddenly caught in an untenable situation involving themselves, their children, and the future. However, the two parents are opposites in how they see their roles in the tragedies brought about by their children: where Shriver's mother looks inwardly for answers--as we soon learn, the person to whom she's writing cannot actually write back--Koch's father looks only for ways to keep his son from harm. He sees little problem with the terrible act Michel has committed, and as the dinner ends and all seems suddenly, shockingly right with their lives, we learn that real evil--at least in Koch's mind--comes not from the society into which we're born but the men and women who guide us through that society. In a strange way, it's what we feed our children--knowledge, attitude, perspective, an understanding of social contracts and how we treat one another--that decides how this big dinner of ours will eventually end.