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20th February
2014
written by Steph
With The Dinner and Long Division, the streak I kicked off with A Tale for the Time Being continues. Which is to say that I keep finding myself knee deep in books about which I have practically no opinion. It’s like they’re bouncing off me, like I’m made of reading impervious Teflon or something. I though that this was perhaps the unfortunate consequence that tends to arise when I let the ToB brackets guide my reading selections (as whenever I’ve tried to read the entire list of contenders in the past, I’ve generally wound up being unimpressed by more titles than not), but I’ve swapped in a non-ToB title (about which, more in a later post) as well, and it didn’t fare much better. So I’m beginning to wonder whether it’s not these books, but something wrong with me instead. Still, even though neither of these books provoked any great reaction in me and I feel like I don’t have tons to say about either, I want to write down some of my thoughts on them. For posterity or vanity… you be the judge. I normally don’t do mini reviews like this, but I’d rather write something than nothing, so reviewlets it shall be!

The Dinner by Herman Koch

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The Dinner

I remember when this came out last year and it seemed to take the literary world by fire due to its incendiary content. Most discussions of the book where rather hush hush, all the better to heighten how shocking its material was, I guess, so while I never really knew what the book was about for sure, I somehow got it into my head that it was a bit like Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. I liked that book well enough, but I don’t know that it left a hole that needed to be filled, and I can’t say I was anxiously waiting for some other novel to fill the gap I didn’t know there was. If this hadn’t been named a finalist for the ToB, I definitely wouldn’t have given this one the time of day because, controversial or no, it just didn’t intrigue me. So, I went into it pretty much with the lowest expectations you could possibly have for a book, which is probably why I suppose I thought it was better than I had anticipated. This is not the same as me thinking that the book was good, but given how vehemently loathed certain reviews of the book were, I didn’t think it was utter garbage or terribly written or anything like that. Mostly, I thought the book was solidly average, certainly hyped and popular for its content more than any other obvious merits that I could see. It was fine, provided you can stand a book where you don’t like any of the characters, and indeed, where the characters just get more and more hateful and repulsive as the book continues on. I am not one of those people who needs to love/admire/respect characters in books in order to enjoy my reading experiences, and yet, the people in this book were so awful (and not even really in an interesting or complicated way, I don’t think) that mostly I wondered what the point of this book existing was. Some have claimed that Koch has written a great work of satire, but forgive me for being a rube, but if that’s the case, what exactly is being skewered or satirized? And does that justify us spending 300 pages with loathsome people making morally reprehensible choices or simply boring us out of our skulls? If it was satire, I guess I didn’t think it was especially clever and if it wasn’t, I didn’t think it was especially shocking or nearly as wicked as others had made it out to be. For all that, The Dinner was a brisk read and I mostly kept reading it because it was easy enough to keep going and make steady progress, but I do feel like the pacing was off about it. I’m not sure why so much of the interesting/important action occurs in the last third of the book, and the opening third meanders unnecessarily. I also felt like as Koch starts revealing more and more terrible things, the things he starts revealing seem increasingly ludicrous (i.e., shocking just to be shocking) and unnecessary. [SPOILER (skip to next paragraph if you don’t want to read): For instance, was it really necessary for Paul to have some sort of genetic illness to explain his rage/psychotic behavior? What illness would that even be? Did Paul have to even be a crazy person?] I guess this is the problem with highly hyped books—they so rarely manage to live up to expectations and in this case, nothing about The Dinner was as big or bad as I had been lead to believe. It wasn’t as horrifying as I had hoped (feared?) and perhaps the constant talk of the surprise ending meant that nothing was in fact a surprise at all. A bit like if you know someone is throwing you a surprise party—even if you don’t know when and where it will take place, the fact that you know it exists is enough to make it not feel surprising when it does happen. Bottom line: This is a nasty book about nasty people. It’s not really very satisfying, and while I don’t exactly regret the time I spent on it, that is also probably because I read it in less than 48 hours and therefore did not spend very much time on it at all. I do not feel like I am any better or worse off for having read it, but still wonder why it exists.

Long Division by Kiese Lamon

Long Division

Long Division

Unlike The Dinner, I didn’t know this book existed until it was named a finalist in this year’s ToB. The brief synopsis I read about it mentioned time travel, which was enough to pique my interest, but truthfully if it hadn’t been for the fact this book was offered on Kindle for free one day, I probably wouldn’t have made it a priority to read. Whereas my feelings for The Dinner skew more towards the negative end of the spectrum, I generally feel more positive about Long Division, especially in contrast to the former. In truth, I actually read Long Division first, but I found it so confusing and befuddling that I put off writing about it, hoping time would allow my thoughts to settle into something a little more coherent. That hasn’t really happened, but when I think about it next to The Dinner, it seems all sweetness and light and I think I like it all the more even though most of the time while I was reading it I pretty much had no idea what was going on. Long Division is one of those “story within a story” novels, where in the primary storyline one of the characters starts reading a book also called Long Division, which features a protagonist who also has the same name that he does. But this second Long Division takes place in 1980s and also involves time travel back to the 1960s… maybe it was because I was reading this on our iPad and it’s one of those books that would work better in print, but I just had such a hard time keeping the storylines straight and sometimes wasn’t entirely sure which storyline I was actually reading since so many of the characters appear in both. I suspect it’s supposed to be purposefully confusing and feel like the layers between realities are bending and folding, but I’m not sure if it was supposed to be quite as confusing as I found it. My brain felt scrambled most of the time I was reading this, which didn’t exactly make me love this book while I was reading it, largely because it made me feel dumb since I couldn’t keep up with it.  I really think that if I had been reading a paper copy, I probably would have had an easier, more enjoyable time of it… there was something about this book that just made me want a tangible, concrete book to hold where I could flip back and forth easily through the pages and the story to anchor myself. One other thing I didn’t exactly love about this book was all of the jargon and slang that was used in it. It certainly didn’t make the book any easier for me to follow or connect with. I've read some reviews where people associate Lamon with another black writer I really like, Victor Lavalle... I kind of see where they're coming from in terms of the tone and the scope of the work, but I would say that stylistically, Lamon’s writing reminded me more of the brash machismo I associate with Junot Diaz. Obviously some people really love that style, but it honestly doesn’t do much for me. I can’t say that I had any big hopes or dreams wrapped up in this book going in since I knew so little about it, but I definitely kept wanting to connect with it and like it more than I really did while reading it. I kept waiting for the pieces to click, for me to tumble head over heels for it, but that never really happened. Still, compared to The Dinner, which it’s not really any longer than, it felt more substantial, more thoughtful, more daring, more creative. Just more, really. I’d still give both books a 3 out of 5, though. Neither terrible, neither awesome. I can’t imagine either will stick with me for every long.

4 Comments

  1. Hahahah, I don’t know how many times I’ve added and removed The Dinner from my Overdrive wish lists! It seems like every review I read of it makes me change my mind about whether I want to read it. Yours definitely put me off — I am not a fan of reading about unpleasant people being unpleasant to each other, no matter how cleverly written the book is.

  2. I enjoyed The Dinner, but a year on I remember next to nothing about the plot. It is one of those books that are enjoyable at the time (well I thought so) but have no lasting impact.

    SPOILER
    I do think it was important to the plot that Paul had a genetic illness, as that means it will be passed on to his children. The book is all about the guilt of passing things on to our children, whether we mean to or not. I thought it added an interesting extra dimension to the discussion.

  3. 02/22/2014

    @ Jenny: Well, I wouldn’t even say this written all that cleverly, so if you really are put off by nasty people with no redemptive qualities (seriously, they are almost cartoonishly nasty), then I would not think you would like this one at all. There is decidedly no light at the end of this tunnel!
     
    @ Jackie: Hmmm… I suppose I see your SPOILER point, though I’d say that most of the guilt in this situation should be properly placed on Paul’s wife rather than Paul himself since she DID know and chose to do nothing. And in fact later admits that she prefers Paul (and their son) as they are. I think it would have been more interesting if they had known about Paul’s condition BEFORE they had children and still had gone ahead and had a kid, but that’s neither here nor there. I guess I just felt like in some sense it sort of diminished how horrible Paul was because the author was trying to explain it away, like he’s sick so that’s why he’s a dick. When he really could have just been a dick and a bad parent without there being any other explanation.
     
    @ claire: My initial impulse is to say that I don’t think you would like it, but then again, maybe you’d find it gripping! I would say your strategy of not worrying about it while you’ve got plenty of other books to plow through is probably the best one!

  4. 02/21/2014

    I had no interest in picking this up before either, it just didn’t seem to be my thing. One review did get me interested now, though, but then if the characters are as you say this awful, then I don’t know.. maybe I’ll think about it more before attempting to pick it up. Meaning, read my TBR first before even thinking about this one.

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