I just love Judge Hodge’s opening so much:
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… 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.
Finally someone has summed up my experience of reading The Dinner! I so hated that book. Unlike the commentators, I didn’t see it as an exploration of evil, nor did I find Koch at all ‘skilful in the way he feeds us little pellets of information without seeming manipulative’. I found it super manipulative and disappointingly predictable. Koch builds up tension until about halfway through the book and then he’s like: ‘You know what, never mind. Here’s what happened.’ And then it just descends into a wallowing in unpleasantness. As Judge Hodge so neatly puts it, ‘eventually the plot becomes so extreme that the novel threatens to collapse under the weight of its implausibility.’ There’s also this thing he does where he says ‘I’m not going to tell you where a particular something is, just trust me that it’s bla.’ I wish I could remember it more fully and explain it better but I read it so long ago and endeavoured to instantly forget it. But it was just an example of how contrived it all felt – he wasn’t going to tell us something, but then he was going to clunkily argue that it wasn’t important anyway and then it just became a little signpost saying, ‘Hello reader! You are reading a book! Never forget it!’
The Signature of All Things was another type of unpleasant. The unpleasantness of a mediocre puttin’ on airs. I don’t understand why people insist on listing it for prizes, it is so supremely ordinary. John Warner sums it up really nicely here: ‘It’s not that The Signature of All Things is bad, so much as it reads like a simulacrum of Dickens. There are 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.’ For starters, she uses the word ‘quim’ about a million times. I wish I had it on my ereader so I could do an actual count . Find another Victorian-era synonym for vagina, lady! The ‘and then’ quality bothered me too. It felt like each episode of Alma’s life was dropped in without a sense of flow or cause and effect. There are small rises and falls but none interact to give a broader sense of character, time or place. The ending feels particularly tacked on.
Either way, I still feel like the lesser of two evils came out on top. Tomorrow’s matchup is between a book I didn’t particularly like but that was beautifully written, and a YA book I love but comes with all my usual concerns about the genre…. Judge Attenberg, I do not envy your choice! And I think I will be happy with whatever call you make. I am surprisingly chill for ToB X. Fay out.