“The Dinner”

A novel by by Herman Koch

The Dinner is is a challenging book mixing up elements of family relationships, mental illness, politics, parenting, adoption, the teaching profession and murder, told through the eyes of a complex and troubled man. It’s not an easy sell, not a comfortable story to experience yet I was pulled through to its conclusion and felt a strange fulfillment despite a cast dominated by unlikeable people doing terrible things.

How did that happen, I ask. Not sure, but I can speak to some tangible aspects of this thin but gripping story.

Dense storytelling

Any good yarn reveals the asphalt in the road for you to follow. It may happen a foot at at time or a mile at a time at the author’s discretion. The storyteller navigates you down this road providing sufficient detail to keep you interested but still moving along.  The road may take you in the wrong direction at times, as with a murder mystery thriller story – “oops, you were thinking this guy was the killer but it looks like he turned up dead.” and you turn around and find the true road. (and the true killer.)

When you look back on that road, that is the narrative thread of the story, the overall thing you remember and either like or dislike.

Some fiction, like this one, reveals the asphalt in patches, segments, but also patches and segments of the ditches and fields surrounding.  Sometimes those patches in the ditch come first, sometimes after, sometimes well afterward, reaching backwards down the road you’ve already traveled to reveal an element of ditch that we had gone by.

The result is a very solid road to travel upon, shored up firmly on all sides. The Dinner does this through Paul, our narrator, and his tendency to wander away from what’s going on over to things that he’s reminded of: to flashbacks or opinions on any given circumstance. This makes a firm surface to travel upon and look back on.

Menu driven

The story is segmented by logical breaks you might find in a fine meal: aperitif, appetizer, main course, etc. A nice little story telling device that gives you a reference point in time.

Pieces of story are thrown down that bring us to conclusions, sometimes multiple conclusions.  Agonizingly and wonderfully, the story takes its time in confirming which conclusions are correct or even relevant.

As expected the main course is the longest, most detailed, but I was not pleased that this course hardly dwells on the story line – it is primarily a combination of conjecture and backstory.

Judging a book by its summary

I’m not sure if it’s a valid rating point but I have to note that in The Dinner, you have to read to halfway through the book just to catch up with where the sleeve’s summary took us before we even cracked the cover.  Hence, it seems a long journey to learn the details of what we already knew.

Early on, our narrator states that he wishes only to relay what he saw and heard this night and not dwell on unimportant things.  By the time he says this, we have endured about 40 pages of stuff wherein nothing really happens.  It’s no wonder it takes this kind of ink when everything encountered reminds the narrator of some worldly observations, from ornate restaurant washrooms, to personal space-challenged waiters and names our kids call us.

These side commentaries give us a rich image of the narrator, and the author as well, I’m sure.

The book takes a detour through the Paul’s experience leaving his teaching job.  I was anxious to get back to the story line through this part, but I’m pleased to say it all ties together.

Soapbox

It’s every author’s prerogative to express opinions in their work. Our narrator, Paul, expresses a lot of opinions, many of them distasteful to most people. Paul has an opinion about the practice of tipping in restaurants that’s reasonable and others on persons of lower intelligence and flawed justice systems that make you blink in incredulity.

Such opinions underpin and seem to undermine the main story thread. Paul is a tough person to relate to; a tough person to like but oddly, at the end, I felt some satisfaction for him and the outcome he sought. A tricky feat for an author to pull off.

Aftertaste

Given that the story is set in Holland, the author’s home, I found it an interesting revelation that the Dutch people carry a level self-identity issues as a people situated amongst larger cultures, notably France. This reminded me of Canadian’s struggle to find or maintain their own identity next to America.

The book has been made into three different movies in three different languages. This might be because The Dinner as an interior drama could be faithfully recreated as a movie for a low price. I think the appeal is its tangle of themes, ideas and disreputable characters ultimately zero in on a single concept that even troubled and messed up people can experience real love.

 

Station Eleven

by Emily St. John Mandel

e-Reader edition

I have some thoughts about how post-apocalyptic society is envisioned by this book and others. Read it here. 


In Station Eleven, the world ends because of an amazingly effective pandemic. The only survivors on the whole planet are those who avoid contact with the virus (very few) and those who prove to be immune (even fewer). This leaves something like 1% of the world’s population left to carry on. Our civilizations require cooperation, yes, but also manpower, so civilization quickly crumbles under the weight of no maintenance.

We ping-pong around in time to reveal a fuller context and story – many years prior to the event and as much as 20 years after.

In the preceding years, in our “jet age”, the author takes us all over the world to show us how our characters dealt with their ultimately petty problems. In the aftermath, however, we’re pretty much stuck in a region around Lake Michigan – totally understandable in an environment where horse travel is the pinnacle of luxury. The stark contrast between the open spaces of today and the tomorrow’s post-apocalyptic world draws attention to my observation that even though the air and water are cleaner in the future, the lack of ability to travel freely brings an unexpected flavor of claustrophobia that clutches your heart one survival day after another.


I know there are some readers who do not enjoy non-linear stories. So I’ll warn you, this is one of those.  The story jumps around within a 40-year span pretty much at random.  At first, it follows the rule of staying in a certain era while in a given “book” (collection of chapters). Eventually, this rule goes out the window and we’re jumping around blithely, between chapters and sometimes inside chapters.  Once you adjust, it’s a fun ride and I quite enjoyed that unpredictability.

About a quarter of the way through, the story seems to bog down in backstory of a character I never really cared about. But things pick up shortly after we get that out of the way.


One grumble point for me: 20 years afterward things have settled down. Life is still dicey and everybody is still living hand to mouth off the grid (there is no grid).  Most of humanity can fully recall the days of electricity, indoor plumbing and internet. What’s troubling to me is that more effort hasn’t been made to restore the infrastructure from before.

They wouldn’t have to rebuild much, to be clear. Unlike other yarns like this, the end of the world comes and goes and leaves the modern hardware intact.  There was no atomic destruction, fallout or nuclear winter, no aerial EMP blast frying every capacitor and microchip, no world-wide earthquakes, flooding or fires, no zombies or invading aliens and no planet-ending asteroids. After the pandemic, civilization collapses when the people who tend to it, died. The hydroelectric dams, sub-stations and power lines are still physically there. Solar farms still sit in the sun. Modern medical equipment sits idle and intact.

I grant you that the knowledge-base from the old world was severely decimated but it’s not gone. More significantly, anybody over 25 can remember how life was so much better and doesn’t lack the desire to return there. (They made a museum for it.) So why has nobody done so? There are still books out there.

(One character alludes to a rumored someone who temporarily gets a computer booted by generating electricity with a stationary bike. So, why didn’t they keep on that track?)

I noticed an element of sloppiness in story development.  Randomness in character development and events, almost by dice throw. (Part of my squandered youth was spent at dungeons and dragons.)

An example: Except in a few jurisdictions, there are paramedics (who work with living persons) and medical examiners (who work with the deceased – aka coroners).  Paramedics are not permitted to pronounce a death, nor are they allowed to move a dead body, both roles of the medical examiner. Early in Station Eleven, we see paramedics doing both. This speaks to a simple lack of attention to detail, possibly haste in writing.

Another example that I hope isn’t an indication of man’s tendency to be stupid when things get tough. Seriously, guys? You need a horse cart and the best you can do is a dead Chevy pickup and tie it behind Bessie? Really? A vehicle engineered for highway speeds and hauling heavy loads with a 300 horsepower engine is a poor choice to put behind a one-horsepower horse. A truck is going to bottom out at 5,000 pounds dry  after you liberate the engine and transmission. Are you suggesting you can’t find a light weight horse wagon somewhere?


Something that refreshingly separates Station Eleven from the rest of the PA pack for me is the lack of dire situations – there are no dyed-in-the-wool bad guys. There are dangerous people but they are more misguided than evil.

The author herself refers to the novel as a “love letter to the modern world“, something I believe she achieved in spades.