The Dinner by Herman Koch begins when our protagonist and his wife enter a restaurant to meet his brother and sister-in-law for dinner. It is clear from the start that the main character is jealous, mean-spirited, callous of others’ feelings, and probably narcissistic. Everyone’s actions and expressions are interpreted through a very specific, and sometimes uncomfortable, lens.
The book is laid out in courses, like a meal – aperitif to digestif. Each course reveals another layer of what is, like an iceberg, hidden underneath this dinner gathering. We start by learning that the brother, Serge, is a popular opposition candidate for prime minister, well known and well-liked. You start to understand the narrator’s jealousy and snide nit-picking at his brother’s every behavior. His world-view starts to make sense, and you find yourself once again aligned with his understanding and reactions to events.
The core of this book is your dependence on this unreliable narrator. As you gradually peel away this narrator’s worldview, and begin to understand the terrible events the families are struggling with, you start to be believe you have a handle on what’s going on – then the next course is served. This intellectual seduction leads you to the completely rational yet chillingly pragmatic solution to the family’s problems. You are also surprised by everyone’s role in the solution – it’s completely unexpected, yet makes the most sense.