The Signature of All Things
  • March 11, 2014

    Opening Round

  • Elizabeth Gilbert

    2The Signature of All Things
    3The Dinner

    Herman Koch

  • Books provided by

The Dinner

Roger D. Hodge: Imagine, if you will, the worst meal you have ever experienced. Not the worst food, but the most unpleasant, insufferable, excruciating overall experience at table, with the most boorish, self-involved, solipsistic, or self-dramatizing dinner companions. Perhaps the source of the trouble was a relative, or maybe an in-law, though co-workers and bosses, ex-spouses or soon-to-be ex-spouses are equally plausible. Perhaps everyone at the table was a monster (save you, dear reader). Capture a moment from that memory and bring your discomfort to the fore; meditate on that feeling, the agony of contemplating the minutes—the seconds—remaining until the check arrives and release becomes a reality. Imagine the dinner you cannot avoid, the dinner you have dreaded, the dinner from which no escape is possible. The dinner you would blind yourself with dull pencils to avoid repeating. If you ever have suffered such a meal—and who has not?—then you have a reasonably good idea of what it’s like to read The Dinner, by Herman Koch.

Roger D. Hodge is the editor of the Oxford American and the author of The Mendacity of Hope: Presidential Power, Corporate Money, and the Politics of Corrupt Influence. Hodge’s essays have appeared in many publications, including Texas Monthly, the London Review of Books, Popular Science, Men’s Journal, and Harper’s Magazine, where he was editor-in-chief. He is writing a book about life in the West Texas borderlands. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “None.”

The Dinner takes the form of a confession, and the story’s frame, as the title makes clear, is a single meal. Our narrator is a former history teacher named Paul Lohman, the brother of Serge Lohman, a prominent Dutch politician. Serge is running for prime minister. Paul and his wife, Claire, are meeting Serge and his wife, Babette, at a trendy restaurant. The names and the relationships and professions emerge over the course of many pages; Koch likes to mention a name first, in passing, then after a while he drops some clues about the character’s identity. The story emerges with mechanical efficiency. The tone is aggressive, pushy, relentless, just like Paul, who we immediately sense is a very angry man.

Paul has been dreading this dinner. Why? Well, he doesn’t tell us exactly, not at first. He’s always withholding information for one reason or another. He won’t tell us the name of the restaurant, because he doesn’t want people to show up there looking for him, even though he clearly loathes the place. He won’t tell us where Claire was hospitalized or what was wrong with her, because it’s no one’s business. Nor will he mention the name of the student he reduced to tears, or what exactly he said. He makes a point of telling us that he won’t tell us, rather than simply eliding the information. Paul is a difficult man, clearly, and he can’t stand his brother, whom he regards as an unintelligent phony.

It was Serge who picked the restaurant, the kind that usually requires a reservation three months in advance, which by itself is enough to guarantee that Paul will hate the place, because he finds all the drama surrounding restaurants and chefs to be absurd. “Serge never reserves a table three months in advance. Serge makes the reservation on the day itself—he says he thinks of it as a sport.” Babette is also slightly ridiculous, though not as bad as Serge. She shows up to the restaurant wearing sunglasses, earning a silent sneer before Paul realizes that she’s been crying. Probably something Serge said on the way over, he thinks. Later he wonders if Serge fucks the way he eats: as quickly as possible. Surveying the scene, Paul’s gaze passes scornfully over the perky waitresses in their black pinafores and ponytails, and especially the pretentious manager in his ridiculous suit who fusses over the service and belabors his descriptions of each dish, the provenance of the ingredients, and the techniques of preparation. Paul’s observations are probably meant to be funny, but they’re bitter and unpleasant. Perhaps something is lost in translation. “Normally,” Paul says, “I don’t give a damn about that kind of information—as far as I cared, the rosemary could have come from the Ruhr or the Ardennes, but it seemed like far too much fuss over one little plate of olives, and I had no intention of letting him off the hook that easily.” Paul is the kind of man who enjoys giving servers a hard time. We all know the type.

One person Paul adores is Claire, his wife, and at first he tries to contain himself, because he doesn’t want to upset her. As the evening progresses Paul drops little hints about what’s really going on, and the story slowly emerges. Something has gone very wrong in Paul and Claire’s happy little family, and it has something to do with their son, Michel, and his cousin Rick, and possibly Beau, the African boy Serge and Babette adopted from Burkina Faso. The cousins call him Faso. No one at the table, including the reader, is quite sure what the others know, so there are several layers of dramatic irony at work. Most of the details emerge in extended flashbacks, narrated by Paul, that become ever more fantastic and violent. I can’t tell whether we’re to take these episodes at face value or whether they are meant to signal Paul’s unreliability as a witness, but eventually the plot becomes so extreme that the novel threatens to collapse under the weight of its implausibility.

I won’t tell you what happens, to paraphrase Paul, but it doesn’t really matter. The dinner ends badly, as it must. That was obvious from the first page. Koch’s achievement, if it is an achievement, is to have created a reading experience that is possibly even more unpleasant than the nightmarish meal at the center of the novel.

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Uncomfortable scenes at the dinner table also figure prominently in The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert. Koch quotes Tolstoy’s famous observation about happy and unhappy families, only to invert it; Gilbert’s grand 19th-century narrative remains true in spirit to the great Russian in more ways than one. The Signature of All Things is a big novel of adventure and ideas, science and exploration, love and sorrow. The story of Alma Whittaker, born in 1800 to a great botanical explorer and businessman, takes us all over the world. We follow her father, Henry Whittaker, from London’s Kew Gardens to Madeira, Tenerife, Table Bay, Tasmania, New Zealand, Tahiti, and Hawaii, as he travels with Captain James Cook onboard the Resolution. Henry is a tough lad, and he will do whatever is necessary to achieve his goals. He endures the agonies of seafaring and youthful inexperience. He meets naked savages and watches them eat raw dog meat. He commits no crimes and at port he avoids the company of women, even the lovely bare-breasted Tahitians. Henry collects exotic gardenias and orchids, carefully packed in dried moss, for his employer at Kew and remains silent and watchful and develops his natural cunning. He avoids Cook’s fate when natives tear the captain to pieces. He travels to Peru and spends years in the Andes, barefoot and shivering, learning the secrets of Jesuit’s bark, which cures malaria. Those secrets make him, along with his Dutch partners, a very rich man. Henry takes a Dutch wife, emigrates to Philadelphia, and founds a botanical and pharmaceutical empire.

Alma Whittaker grows up wealthy among a vast assortment of exotic plants, surrounded by the finest library in the New World. Educated by her mother, she reads Latin and Greek at an early age and speaks several modern languages. Alma sits at the dinner table with her father and joins him in interrogating leading scientists and explorers, who all come seeking patronage, introductions, or financing. All must submit to the terrors of the Whittaker table. She is a prodigy, an obsessive, a natural-born scientist. “In her ninth summer, completely on her own, Alma learned to tell time by the opening and closing of flowers. At five o’clock in the morning, she noticed, the goatsbeard petals always unfolded.” Each hour was revealed by some botanical signal. “By three o’clock, the dandelions had folded.” Alma finds she cannot draw faces or animals but that she can sketch plants with great accuracy. When she wishes her drawings were more beautiful, her mother replies, “Beauty is not required. Beauty is accuracy’s distraction.” Alma never tires of observation and experiment and always seeks the why as well as the what and the how.

The behavior of humans presents more complex puzzles; Alma lacks social graces and emotional intelligence. She is passionate yet homely and befuddled by the interior lives of others, especially her strange, beautiful adopted sister Prudence. Alma’s uncompromisingly scientific mind drives her forth into the world, where she makes discoveries both personal and scientific. As a woman, however, she must struggle against a society that is not yet prepared to accept her intellectual contributions.

The Signature of All Things commands a large stage: The narrative unfolds against the backdrop of European colonialism and empire, amid the social turmoil of the scientific and industrial revolutions, as well as the abolitionist movement. The mysticism of Jacob Boehme contends with the naturalism of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace. Gilbert pitches her voice in a pleasingly old-fashioned register and demonstrates a strong command of historical and scientific detail, yet never overwhelms the reader with historical data for its own sake. Instead, she transforms botany into the raw material of an earthy lyricism: the natural history of mosses has never been so sensual. Gilbert plays no games with temporality or point of view. She populates her story with strong characters who are in turn appealing and horrific, pathetic and fairly heroic. Like any self-respecting 19th-century novelist, she flirts with melodrama yet avoids miring her narrative in sentiment. “Time,” Gilbert writes at one point, “does not object to passing,” and indeed time passes quickly in this enormously entertaining novel, despite its size and the scope of its ambitions. The contrast with The Dinner, a distasteful and unappetizing exercise in nastiness, could not be more stark.

TODAY’S WINNER: The Signature of All Things

Match Commentary

By Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

John: The opening of Judge Hodge’s ruling was more protracted and elaborate than Luis Tiant’s wind-up, and particularly ironic given that his chief objection to The Dinner is that it withholds key information.

Maybe I’m just sore because I was totally captivated by The Dinner when I read it. It is a nasty, brutal piece of work, but that’s why I enjoyed it. It creeped me out, big-time.

Kevin: One of the mini-themes of this year, besides the resurgence of the word “Dickensian,” is the unlikable narrator. We have several books here not just with flawed protagonists, but with truly irredeemable individuals at the center of the story: The People in the Trees (which we will talk about in a few days), The Dinner, and, to a lesser extent, Hill William. But the delight for me in reading The Dinner is the slow reveal. At first Paul is just insufferable (and there are certainly questions regarding his reliability as a narrator). As you learn more about the incident they have gathered to discuss, you start to become unsettled by the amoral direction the conversation begins to take, and it quickly spins toward a resolution that is much worse than you were anticipating. I liked it a lot—it was tense and surprising and it unfolds in something close to real time. But it’s probably not a ride everyone wants to take.

John: Recently I was talking to a student who very plainly wondered why the villains in literature always seem to be more interesting than the heroes, and I’ve been ruminating over that question ever since. I suppose there’s something to the notion that we don’t have to worry so much about villains being likable. They just need to be compelling.

To be fair to Judge Hodge, his primary objection appears to be aesthetic rather than being inherently against fiction told from the point of view of monsters. For me, I’m fascinated by the exploration of evil, which is how I’d characterize The Dinner.

Kevin: The structure of The Dinner challenges you to empathize with a bad person. I don’t believe Koch is advocating for Paul’s point of view, but the novel dares you to go there. It’s like those little Plexiglass balconies that extrude from the observation deck of Sears Tower (sorry, Willis Tower), where you can look straight down past your toes at a 108-story plunge to your death. The Dinner provides a safe place to try on some dark thoughts. (I realize most people who aren’t me consider the Willis Tower observation deck a good place for taking adorable family Christmas card photos as opposed to contemplating their own horrible deaths. I don’t understand why you can’t do both at the same time.)

John: I was actually quite impressed how Koch was able to develop tension, even though all of the events, save the dinner, have already happened. Normally this kind of withholding bugs me, but it felt very organic to Paul and made the revelations all the more haunting when they arrive.

Kevin: Koch is very skillful in the way he feeds us little pellets of information without seeming manipulative. Ultimately, though, I wish he’d given us a little bit less in the revelations department. I wish The Dinner had ended just a few pages earlier, after we know in our hearts what is about to happen, but before it actually does. So much of the tension of the book is in our heads, and I would have liked the final scene to have taken place there instead of explicitly on the page. Still, the hardest part of writing a book is ending it (I think that claim is backed up by the number of complaints readers have about the ends of books whose beginnings and middles they loved), and The Dinner was a novel I recommended a lot to friends in the past year. Even though I read it almost a year ago, it remains very vivid in my mind.

John: There’s been a lot of sentiment floating about comparing The Signature of All Things to 19th-century novels of the Dickens variety. I guess that’s true, at least on the surface, but I never remember being so bored by Dickens. It’s not that The Signature of All Things is bad, so much as it reads like a simulacrum of Dickens. There’s pages and pages of narrative summary and characters who come onto the scene and then disappear forever (or nearly so). There is an “and then” quality to the plot—and then this happens, and then this happens. The prose is sometimes flabby, as I feel the strain of Gilbert trying to achieve her tone.

The irony for me in the face of Hodge’s judgment is that it feels much more forced and manipulative than The Dinner.

Kevin: Last week, the Dickensian doorstop (The Luminaries) lost to the dark and compact contemporary novel (Hill William). Today it went the other way. And since we’re at the midway point of the opening round, perhaps it’s a good time to start looking ahead to the Zombie Round, in which a pair of previously vanquished books are raised from the dead (based on reader votes received in a pre-tourney poll) to do battle with our presumptive semi-finalists. The Dinner might be too polarizing a novel to pick up the needed traction with voters. Certainly The Luminaries is a candidate. I would think that no matter which book loses tomorrow, it might have a shot at late-tourney resurrection.

John: Which brings us to the next matchup, in which we’ll see if this year’s YA-crossover hit, Eleanor & Park, can stand up to the long-anticipated novel from Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland.

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