Dinner with Sociopaths

The Dinner (2009) by Herman Koch is about a sociopath.  But you wouldn’t know that at first.  As I read, I thought, “Oh, here is a nice man named Paul having dinner with his annoying and famous brother Serge.  Yes, his attitude is a little hostile, but his brother’s a jerk, right?”

Well, that is true.  His brother is a famous politician running for prime minster in the Netherlands, where the novel is set.  But Paul also happens to be a sociopath.  What is captivating about this novel is that we don’t know it at first, but as the narrative unfolds, from Paul’s perspective, we realize by degrees that he is unreliable and that he’s also an awful and enabling person.  His son is involved in some terrible crimes, along with his cousin, Serge’s son, but the two sets of parents have covered it up and are meeting for dinner to discuss the situation further, especially as it pertains to Serge’s political campaign.

the dinner cover

I don’t want to give too much away, in case you’d like to read this one.  I know it has been making the rounds and seems pretty popular right now, as the English translation of it has just come out.  I will say that I liked the structure of the novel.  It follows the courses of the fancy dinner that Paul, Serge and their wives, Claire and Babette, respectively, are eating.  The action of the novel occurs during this dinner, although Paul does recount memories of incidents, usually his own violence, during the episodes of dinner.

In the end, there is a shocking turn of events, including that Paul’s wife Claire may also be somewhat violent.  She seems in control and so normal and nice during the dinner, but Paul from the outset describes her as more intelligent than he.  After finding out Claire’s true capabilities, whether those came as instinct from being a mother or from selfish desires, I suspect she may be a sociopath, too.  It is as if their entire family are sociopaths, and some of Paul’s own medical diagnoses and fears about genetics play into this suspicion.

Additionally, Paul has racist and classist ideas about genetics.  He remembers losing his job as a history teacher for suggesting that some of the millions of people killed during the Holocaust may have deserved it or that the world is likely better without them.  (Warning: this quote has a bit of strong language.)  He says, “In a group of one hundred people, how many assholes are there?  How many fathers who humiliate their children? How many morons whose breath stinks like rotten meat but who refuse to do anything about it?  How many hopeless cases who go on complaining all their lives about the nonexistent injustices they’ve had to suffer? . . . Think about that one member of your own family, that irritating uncle with his pointless horse-shit stories at birthday parties, that ugly cousin who mistreats his cat.  Think about how relieved you would be—and not only you, but virtually the entire family—if that uncle or cousin would step on a land mine or be hit by a five-hundred-pounder dropped from a high altitude” (p. 176).  He has no concept of the value of human life, even those souls that may be more precious to God than they are to everybody else.  He sees certain people as expendable, and as the narrative progresses, we see that he uses this frame in favor of himself and his family.

There are several remembered incidents of violence.  As these are revealed, we realize that Paul is not normal and that the story he’s telling us may be skewed in his favor, although the more he speaks the less we can trust him.  Here’s the line that stood out to me because it revealed his true character: “When faced with lower intelligences, the most effective strategy in my opinion is to tell a barefaced lie: with a lie, you give the pinheads a chance to retreat without losing face” (p. 259).  From this,  we learn that he is a liar and that he thinks everybody is of lower intelligence, except his wife, who we soon realize loves him for his violent and sociopathic tendencies.

When he finally begins to reveal what his son has been up to, it becomes clear that the father and son share some tendency for violence.  But all Paul can admit is this: “If heredity existed, if anything was hereditary, then it had to be our shared aversion to sweet desserts” (p. 221).

The overarching premise of the book is from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the first line in fact.  That “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” (p. 6).  Paul is stuck on this idea and uses the rest of the book to try to convince us and himself that they are happy.  They are happy in a strange and twisted way, which may turn Tolstoy’s idea on its head.

However, can sociopaths be happy?

35 thoughts on “Dinner with Sociopaths

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  1. I think you hit the nail on the head with this one. Paul and the bunch are all sociopaths. I enjoyed this book but have to admit it made me cringe–a lot. What really made me think was how Paul and Claire basically aided and abetted their son in his crimes. I think this drove home the point that some parents will do anything to protect their children and indeed, Paul and Claire attribute all they do to the preservation of their family. It made me ponder how far I would go to protect my family and whether I would be able to distinguish right from wrong at the point when circumstances turn dire. I think it bodes favorably for me that I’m not a sociopath, unlike Paul and Claire. A fascinating read.

    1. It is certainly fascinating. I like how it made you wonder how far you would go. I was disturbed from the get-go that his son’s cell phone was considered so private. Where I live and the culture I’m part of, that doesn’t fly. Parents are very aware of their children’s social media and technology use. That surprised me.

  2. I’d read this book too and I remember being unsure of how I felt…it was like being on a leisurely boat ride that turned into a nightmare, and you find yourself not being able to get off 😉 I couldn’t put the book down after about a third of the way through, and by then I was beginning to dislike the characters more and more. It was so disturbing to be a fly on the wall at this dinner, but I suppose that is what makes the book fascinating.

    1. I agree with Ngan R above. What was appealing to me was the story of how far parents would go to protect their children. Have you read Defending Jacob? It’s a more realistic story of the same topic, and in that way equally frightening if in a different way…because it’s easier to put yourself into this particular narrator’s shoes.

      1. Good description! It is like being a fly on the wall. I haven’t read Defending Jacob. I’d be interested in something more realistic. I’m one who certainly wants to protect my children, but I understand how good it is for them to “suffer the consequences” of their actions. I let them feel sorrow and shame and guilt and then we talk about why what they did was wrong and help them make amends. Nothing huge has happened, because they are still so little, but I think protecting your kids too much (from consequences and failing) turns out to be a disservice to them.

  3. The Dinner is easily my favorite book I’ve read this year, and I’ve recommended it to everyone I’ve talked to. Even before finding out the true horror of the characters and the events surrounding the dinner, there’s this sense that something’s not right – with the situation and with the people in it. The story paints a pretty bleak picture of how far someone would go to protect the ones they love, and I loved that.

    1. It really is bleak, and I wonder how true/untrue it is. We’ve heard helicopter parenting be analyze and criticized to death over the last few years, but perhaps this shows us the extreme of parenting that way. I am glad you weighed in!

  4. It sounds like a really disturbing book. However, I do like the idea of a highly intelligent character and I think you know by now that “Anna Karenina” is my favorite book so the challenge to Tolstoy is interesting too. Did you ever read “Tolstoy Lied” by Rachel Kadish? She also turns that happy family idea on its head.

  5. Love this review, I’m going to pick this book up next time I’m in a bookstore or library!

    To answer the question you pose at the end about can psychopaths be happy, the answer is yes. I’m working on a novel about psychopaths myself right now so I’ve done a fair amount of research on them, and while experts associate a wide variety of different characteristics to identify psychopaths (many of which you’ve listed in describing these characters), the inability to attain happiness is not one of them. My understanding is that the primary symptom that classifies a person as a psychopath is an extreme lack of empathy, i.e., they view human beings as objects to be used as opposed to people (the example my abnormal psych professor used in college was that they think of people as being equivalent to computer mouses), and psychopaths can achieve a great amount of happiness if they use these people in the manner they desire. This is why psychopaths can be so dangerous; they are oftentimes happy in the outcomes of their actions and feel little to no regret for them, because why would you feel sorry about using an object?

    Thanks again for the great review!

    1. Fascinating! Thanks for helping me to understand. I knew the lack of empathy thing, and I guess my mind decided that if they can’t feel that, they can’t feel anything. But not true! I think you’ll enjoy the book given your knowledge on this. You will likely see more of this than I did. 🙂

  6. I’ll add this to my list. Your review of the main character made me wonder what differences between him and H.H. from Lolita. I’m curious what makes this one more acceptable than H.H. Why doesn’t it create the same fear-to-read & grossed-out-hype that Lolita did, and still does? I don’t know, as I’ve not read The Dinner, but I’ll have to read it because now I’m super curious.

    I do think sociopaths can be happy. What makes them happy is probably different, though.

    1. I actually had a friend on Goodreads compare this narrator to H. H. I’d be interested in hearing your reaction after you read this. I think if you do, you might see why Paul isn’t as “bad” as H. H., but maybe he really is and we just tend to scale certain crimes and our relationships to them differently.

  7. Excellent post! I also enjoyed this book. If you read it on a symbolic level, you see a family discussing whether or not to cover up their sons’ crimes amidst the elegant trappings of a high class dinner. This, along with the brother running for office etc. points to the importance of the facade over all else. Quite fitting for a novel about sociopaths. 🙂

  8. What a chilling family – I was unaware of this book until your review and now I’m intrigued. One can only hope that a story that centers around the baser side of human nature will remind the reader that better choices can be made – including valuing the life of every creature. Good post.

    1. I would say that is what I got out of it, but now you’ve got me wondering if everybody would. I can’t really say if that is the obvious point of the narrative or not. I think it is, in an ironic way, but if somebody wanted to agree with Paul when reading this, they could!

  9. Well said summary of the book. It’s funny though because I read the book myself, and the events that happen were what turned me off from the book because the events were not only sociopathic but unrealistic. I felt like I was in some kind of magical realism world where these things could happen, and so I couldn’t relate it to reality.

  10. I’m really looking forward to reading this one! I’ve read some great reviews, and have ordered it from Book Depository – just awaiting it’s arrival 🙂 Sounds creepy, an interesting insight into the sociopathic.

      1. I don’t think so – I feel like that after reviewing a book sometimes too. Though knowing me, by the time I read it I won’t remember too much other than that it got good reviews!

        1. Good point. I sometimes cringe when I hear a review on NPR or see too much of a movie trailer, but by the time I get to it, I’ve forgotten and the experience is fresh.

    1. Yes, I would say it follows the unities, except that Paul has memories of actions outside of the place and time, but he is remembering them while within the action and the present. The end converges from this a little. But it doesn’t read like a play. It is more like being inside the narrator’s head.

  11. Great review. This was one of those books that I felt very unsettledabout while I was reading it and was glad when I finished.. However, I found myself thinking about the characters, their values (or lack of), and their choices for days after I finished the book–and, to me, that’s the mark of a good writer.

    1. I completely agree. You’ve reminded me that sometimes reading about horrible characters and their bad choices is a good way of promoting our own “morality.” Bad examples work just as well (or better than) than good ones.

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