This review was originally published on Pol Culture.
The 2009 novel The Dinner, by the Dutch writer Herman Koch, is an intricately crafted and darkly entertaining read. Koch uses a familiar modernist structure. A small, mundane scenario--in this instance, a get-together among two brothers and their wives at an upscale Amsterdam restaurant--is used as a springboard for a series of observations and recollections by the narrator. He is the younger of the two brothers, and his musings at first are quite funny. He takes a sardonic view of the consumerist, appearance-obsessed pretensions of bourgeois urbanites, and his occasionally boorish older brother is his principal target. But the novel’s tone becomes more sinister as the evening continues. All four of the principals are on edge, and the tension occasionally boils over. The dinner turns out not to be a social occasion, and its true purpose gradually comes to light. The teenage sons of both couples are potentially in an enormous amount of trouble, and the parents have to decide what to do. At that point, the stage has been set for a brilliant series of narrative reversals. The narrator’s initially entertaining disaffection is revealed as something quite disturbing, and one’s views of the other characters are turned upside down. With regard to the dilemma concerning the sons, one goes from sympathetic to surprised to horrified at what is done and condoned in the cause of their future. The finale is powerfully ironic: the narrator, so cynically disdainful of bourgeois preoccupations with status, comes to exemplify the depth of evil those values can foster. Koch does a masterful job of orchestrating the shifts in both the story and its tone. The novel goes from a light social satire to a profoundly unsettling one, and it’s quite a roller-coaster ride. The English-language edition was translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett.