Misbehaving by Richard H. Thaler


I’ve never thought I’d once read a book about economics that I’d have to violently pry from my own hands at 1:00 a.m to force myself to go to sleep, after promising myself three times that I’d definitely sleep after just one more chapter, and failing to keep this promise three times.

What’s more, I’ve never thought I’d ever willingly read about economics. I used to have this weird prejudice against economics and economists that economists are probably like one of my high school classmates who was preparing for a career in this field and who once borrowed a 500-page volume of poetry from the library (perhaps in an attempt to attain a rounded education) and read through it from beginning to end while I watched in horror. Anyway, based on this I thought that economics must be an awfully regular and cold and logical field of study, and those always make me want to break down and cry.

In hindsight, I think this classmate of mine must have been an Econ – a homo economicus, who – based on this book’s definition – is a human who behaves rationally in all circumstances, makes all the right choices based on knowledge and facts, knows what’s advantageous for him, and doesn’t suffer from issues with self-control and will-power, so he can always act according to what’s in his best interest. According to Thaler, though, Econs – even though for a long time they served as models for all kinds of theories in economics – don’t really exist. Instead of Econs, the world is mostly filled with Humans, who tend to make irrational decisions based on impulses; who prefer to eat one Oreo cookie now instead of eating three 15 minutes later; who sometimes go all the way across town to get something for a couple of dollars less while in other situations cheerfully ignore those same couple of dollars; who know in the depth of their hearts that they should finally start saving money for retirement but still tend to postpone dealing with this question because setting up a retirement fund or taking out a pension insurance is complicated and involves filling out various forms.

And what a relief to read about Humans, not Econs.

Because don’t get me wrong: Thaler doesn’t say that it’s the Humans’ fault that they don’t behave as if they were Econs. He says it’s economics to blame when it bases its theories and models on the impossibly predictable behavior of beings who don’t even exist. And Thaler spent his life trying to change this false belief economics had about Humans.

Richard Thaler is one of the founding fathers of behavioral economics. Right from the beginning of his career, he liked to misbehave a lot, he had a penchant for studying all kinds of anomalies (phenomena where Humans didn’t behave in the way they were supposed to behave based on the tenets of economics based on Econs), and he liked to team up with psychologists and social scientists during his work (which, again, didn’t endear him to the supposedly precise and data-driven bunch of economists).

The book is partly a professional autobiography, and partly the story of the birth and development of the field of behavioral economics – and it’s certainly an exciting story. There’s a whole lot of entertaining debates and fights here between professors of different elite universities, and it’s exhilarating to watch all these duels between old-school economists who hang on for dear life to the old economical models while the misbehaving economists of Thaler’s kind go on to demonstrate that the old models don’t work.

And then there’s a lot of down-to-earth and entertainingly presented examples of everyday economics: why we feel regret if we have a ticket to a concert but decide to stay at home on the big night because of a snowstorm; why we feel it’s grossly unfair if the hardware store sells snow shovels at twice their regular price on the day after the big snowstorm; why we tend to choose a small reward we can be sure about instead of taking risks but why we tend to take bigger risks in a losing situation; and how cleverly we convince ourselves that if we buy a bottle of expensive wine now, which we want to drink ten years later, then this is not really an expense but an investment, and ten years from now we can drink a bottle of special wine for free. (Of course, none of these forms of behavior conform to the way an Econ would behave.)

So all in all, this is a very educational and interesting book, and it’s very humanistic in its approach. And Thaler is a funny, ironic and self-ironic natural-born storyteller, someone who – believe me – can even talk about pension insurance in a way that you want to read one more chapter about it. And then one more. And then you feel like you want to take out an insurance policy first thing next morning.

The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis


This is the most disagreeable coming-of-age novel I’ve ever read. This is one of my favorite genre – for some unfathomable reason I’m still deeply interested in what it’s like to grow up, and of course I’m aware that some of the main themes of growing up are sex and our own wonderful, special, one-of-a-kind snowflake personalities which we are positively dying to exhibit to someone, but the protagonist of this novel is so disgustingly self- and sex-centered that my usual powers of empathy don’t seem to work here.

Charles, the 19-year-old protagonist makes it his goal in life to have sex with an older woman before he turns 20. The older woman in question is only about a month older than him, but so be it. Charles develops a crush on Rachel and he’s determined to get her. He employs quite a nerdy method for this end, by the way – he wants to win the heart of his lady with quotes from Blake’s poetry, with whole conversations and mini-presentations prepared before their encounters, and with books, vinyls and magazines arranged in his room in masterly and artful disarray that’s supposed to indicate how irresistible and tasteful he is.

Does he succeed? I won’t go into that. In any case, during his big Rachel-siege, Charles learns a lot not just about Rachel but about himself, too, and – supposedly – he gets somewhat wiser by the end.

Is this a good novel? On the one hand, it’s absolutely infuriating, because this story is exclusively about how Charles feels, what happens to him, and how he’s unable to accept the humanity of anyone else besides himself. I’m not sure how such things work now among teens, but I think/hope this must have changed since the 1970s when the novel is set. Anyway, this here is still an era where contraception is something only the girl is supposed to worry about, where it’s still unmanly and embarrassing for a guy to buy and use a condom, and where it’s cause for a major relationship crisis if the male finds out that girls also poop. (Naturally, girls don’t crap or take a shit – but according to Charles’ world view, they shouldn’t even poop.) And the reason I’m only talking about the bodily aspects of a relationship is because there’s no other aspect mentioned here in this novel. As regards the mind and personality of Rachel (or anyone else), the closer we come to that is Charles indicating that the girl probably doesn’t have a personality, and even if she does, it’s surely not very interesting.

On the other hand, though – if I look at this novel from a literary perspective, it’s not bad at all. I believe Amis when he says that this is one kind of life as a teenager: this nightmare of hormones, this huge desire to fit in, this posh-English elitism, this machismo, this constant smart-assery, this insensitivity to every other human, which means that even while you’re trying to win your girl, the only thing that matters to you is how you look in the other’s eyes, while not giving the least shit about how the other person is. So yes – it’s written convincingly.

And I understand and feel that this novel is satirical. Charles wasn’t meant to be a likeable teenager. (Which is a pretty big feat, by the way – creating a teenage character I hate. I like basically every teenage character in the history of teenage novels, starting, naturally, from Holden Caulfield right up to Charlie from The Perks of Being a Wallflower.)

But even if  it’s a satire, and even if it’s written decently, it’s still a hateful novel for me. It’s not entertaining, not satirical enough to make me forget about its detestable sexism.

Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit


It’s usually difficult to mention this important fact casually in the post about whatever book I’m writing about, so probably I haven’t mentioned it too often on this blog yet that I love to walk. I don’t mean ambling, strolling, or hiking. I mean walking. Walking to reach a destination, or walking just for the sake of walking. Mostly in cities, but anywhere else for that matter.

I don’t have a car (nor do I have a driving license), I don’t have a public transport pass, and I don’t have a bike. I go wherever I can on foot, and when I can’t go somewhere on foot, I take the public transport, preferring the slower and more earth-bound options because I like to be in close contact with the ground I tread, and I like to go as slow as possible because the journey is usually more interesting than the arrival.

Nowadays I’m preparing mentally for a long walk, and while I was reading up on my intended trip, I came across this book. I wanted it immediately.

And I wasn’t disappointed – this book is just like a walk.

A walk taken by someone else, therefore not precisely as enjoyable as my own walks.

Solnit’s walking style, rhythm and speed don’t always match mine; she doesn’t always stop for a break at the places I would stop at, sometimes she wanders around for hours at places I wouldn’t even stop to look at, and sometimes she rushes by things I find enormously exciting. Despite all this, it’s mostly very interesting. Solnit’s thoughts about the beauties of walking are similar to mine, and she writes about her passion for walking in a way that I immediately start to plan my next all-day walk.

For instance, she says that walking, the speed of 3 miles per hour is somehow perfectly matches the speed of the mind, which is the reason why you can do a lot of wonderful free association, thinking, and remembering during a walk.

Another attribute of walking she finds attractive, which I find very attractive, too, is the slowness of it, and the fact that walking is one of the best and most accepted ways of doing nothing while still doing something. Sure, walking is slow. But one of the reasons I walk everywhere is that my daily walking time is often the only part of my day when I’m free to do seemingly nothing, when I’m not required to be efficient or seem efficient – and this is great because nothing could be farther from my mind than a desire to be efficient 24 hours a day.

Of course, everyone walks all the time. Everyone used to walk throughout history. And even though the book deals with Solnit’s own walks and her corresponding theories about walking, too, it’s still mostly a book about the interesting bits of the history and development of walking. It’s not a definitive history of walking (writing such a thing would probably be impossible), it’s one history of walking – and it’s a strange topic: what kind of history could such an everyday activity have?

Turns out walking does have a history, and not only that – it also has a lot of cultural, political and social aspects, and the answer to the question of who, when, why, where and how much could walk isn’t that everyone everywhere could walk just as much as their legs desired.

Solnit touches upon a whole array of topics and fields of sciences – there’s literary history here, together with anthropology, cultural history, feminism, philosophy, climbing, landscape architecture, art history, city planning, urbanization and suburbanization, and countless others.

She really goes in so many directions that I have to contend myself with mentioning only a few interesting bits.

For example, Solnit talks about the connections among the rise of automobile traveling, suburbanization, the decline of walking, and alienation. It’s not only that everything is far away in an American suburb so you can’t possibly get anywhere on foot – the reason you can’t go anywhere on suburbia is that there are no destinations there and that everyone goes by car anyway, so walking is suspicious. And another reason is the lack of sidewalks – and by the way, the lack of sidewalks or any kind of walkable spaces for that matter is terrifying for me, and I’m glad that in Europe it’s still possible to walk at most places. Of course, the lack of walkable spaces also entails that the street as a space for public discourse ceases to exist, and everyone just moves from one private space to another in the privacy of their car, while the street becomes ever more dangerous and scary.

Another exciting topic Solnit deals with is the male and female presence on the street – it’s a fascinating topic of gender studies – why the street is more dangerous and more forbidden for a female than for a male, and this is one of the topics I would have liked to read much more about.

And then Solnit also talks about walkable and unwalkable cities; about metaphors and similes connected to walking; about Elizabeth Bennet’s scandalous two-mile walk across the muddy fields which resulted in getting her gown dirty; about revolutions, festivals and peace marches, all of which involve people getting out there on the streets, walking there alone or together with others, creating traffic obstacles or just having fun; about walking clubs and walking movements; about the cult of nature; about the accidental beauties of walking and the unexpected meetings it can lead to; about walking-as-art; about the (literary) figure of the flâneur; and about a million other things.

This book is like what happens when you set out in the morning and you know that you will spend the whole day walking, you will cover several miles, you will see and think many things, and though not everything will be fascinating or even interesting, a lot of things will be like that. And this is another great aspect of long walks – if the walk is really long, than you can easily spend 3 miles thinking about finally reaching a spot where you can pee – because there’s time enough for this, for something completely mundane to fill your mind for miles. Because there will be all the other miles for all the other kinds of thoughts.

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell


There’s this wonderful section in José Saramago’s All the Names (translated by me from the Hungarian, so it probably doesn’t have too much in common with the official English translation):

„The decision popped out of Senhor José’s mind two days later. We generally don’t say that a decision pops out of our mind, people guard their personality carefully no matter how plain it is, and their human poise, no matter how insignificant it is, so they’d rather tell us that they thought things over before taking the final step, considered the benefits and the drawbacks, pondered the chances and choices, and after intense mental work they finally decided. We must say, things never work this way.”

Blink illustrates in 300 (breathtakingly interesting and un-putdownable) pages the point Saramago makes in a single paragraph. Which just underlines the fact that (good) fiction understands the essence of things and the working of humans just as well as (popular) psychology, and it doesn’t even have to provide lengthy explanations. Anyway, like I say, Gladwell’s explanations and stories are fascinating so I don’t mind the length at all.

Blink is about how decisions pop out of us – about how in the blink of an eye, armed with only the most minimal information, without carefully considering the pros and cons we suddenly make a decision or evaluate a situation. Whether, for example, we find someone likeable of disagreeable; whether a work of art is genuine or fake; whether the person coming in our direction on the dark street is potentially dangerous or harmless; whether someone’s lying or not; whether a musician plays well or not; and so on.

According to Gladwell, our instant decisions and evaluations of situations are often more precise than the decisions we make after scrupulously investigating every facet of the matter. The reason for this is that our brain, without us being consciously aware of it, continuously senses and interprets millions of morsels of information, and is able to come up with a decision or answer in a matter of seconds. In other words, this is the famous gut feeling, which in fact doesn’t have a lot to do with feelings. These premonitions and unconscious decisions are also based on real information, already existing knowledge, details and patters observed unconsciously – and not on some whim or fancy.

Gut feelings are thus very useful, and according to Gladwell, it’s worth placing greater trust in them. Which is, of course, difficult. Partly because our premonitions and instant recognitions are inexplicable, and as we are humans, we like to explain everything away because it makes us feel safer. Therefore, we tend to trust those things more for which we can line up lots of supporting facts and hard data – things we can put into words, but turns out we sometimes do more harm than good with this attitude.

A good example for this is the phenomenon of “verbal overshadowing” mentioned in the book. This is the case when our attempt to verbalize something harms our ability to recognize it. Face recognition is an example of instant recognition: we don’t ponder consciously what makes someone’s face recognizable but when we see a familiar face, we recognize it immediately. According to certain studies, though, if, for example, we try to describe in words the face of a criminal whose crime we witnessed, this makes it less likely that we’ll recognize the face in a police line-up.

This is one difficulty. And then there’s the other one, namely, that our ability to make instant decisions is far from being infallible. Our instant decisions are strongly influenced by prejudices, by what we want to see into a situation, by extreme stress, or by the situations in which we have to make quick decisions too quickly. Even making instant decisions takes some time, and without sufficient time we will simply decide imprudently.

The good news is, though, that the ability to make instant decisions is by no means some kind of magical ability only possessed by a select few. It’s something almost everyone’s brain is capable of, something we automatically use every single day, and something that can grow strong on its own in our areas of expertise.

The first chapter of the book is about this exactly. The chapter deals with an antique sculpture in miraculously good condition that’s offered for sale to a museum by an antiques dealer. The museum carries out all the usual checks and examinations before committing to the purchase, and they decide that the sculpture is genuine. A little later, however, a couple of real experts take a look at the sculpture and they immediately, without any kind of examinations, see that it’s a fake. They can’t say why they think it’s a fake – all they have is a vague, instinctive reaction which comes down to the general feeling that something’s not okay. As it turns out later, the sculpture was really not okay.

This is not magic, though. It’s more like that anecdote I’ve read once somewhere, where someone asked a painter or an art historian how he knows whether a painting is good. He said: That’s easy. First you look at one million paintings, and then you’ll know.

I’ve long been fascinated by this anecdote, and Gladwell says it actually works this way. It really only takes this much for people who know their craft, people with a lot of experience, because their brain already contains all their previous knowledge and information necessary for making instant judgments. (And of course not even these people are infallible.)

I could go on and recount more stories from this book – Gladwell is an excellent, exhilarating story-teller. The review quoted on the front page, which says that Blink is great material for cocktail party conversations, is certainly true. I don’t really attend cocktail parties, but this book is also awesome for pub conversations. It’s entertaining-popular psychology at its best.

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie


I used to have a period long ago when I read lots of books by Agatha Christie. I wasn’t methodical, I didn’t have a plan, and altogether I read perhaps a third of her books. And this novel is one I keep returning to. I’ve read it three or four times already, and even though I know all the twists by heart, it’s enough for me to read the little poem on the first page, which serves as an inspiration for the murderer when he plans his murders, and I immediately have the shivers running down my spine. (I’m not intending to name the murderer, but his identity might be guessed from the following paragraphs.)

As for the story – at the beginning of the novel, ten guests arrive on a small island that’s just off the coast of England but inaccessible in bad weather. One guest dies on the first evening, and by the next morning, the housekeeper’s wife is also dead. No wonder then that a panicky mood soon sets in among the remaining guests as the suspicion arises that there’s probably a killer hiding somewhere on the island. They soon establish that there’s nobody else on the island except for the guests, so the only important question remains: who among the eight is the murderer, and how can he be stopped before he goes on to kill everyone?

Reading And Then There Were None for the first time was a stunning, deeply unsettling and uncomfortable experience for me, and this hasn’t changed much during the subsequent re-readings. This novel is so ominous and so claustrophobic that it doesn’t matter that I learn the truth in the end (or that I already know the truth because I remember it from my previous readings), because by that time I’m already well under its effect. Finishing this novel is not like finishing any other mystery story: here I don’t feel the comfort and satisfaction I usually feel, and I cannot sit back and say: well, this was an interesting murder mystery, brilliantly solved by a smart detective while I had some good fun. Instead, I feel as if I finished a deep psychological drama of several hundred pages, something that would occupy my mind for several days to come, something I’d never be able to completely forget.

In this novel Christie managed to do something that is quite unusual in a murder mystery and something that sets this novel apart from her own works, too. This is the only murder mystery (not only by Christie but in general) I’ve read more than once in my life, so it’s definitely more than a moderately engaging story that’s good for a rainy Saturday afternoon.

What makes it special, then? First, that it deals with the question of sin much more deeply, analytically and philosophically than most crime stories. The specific murders don’t even matter that much here – what matters is the philosophy of the murderer, the philosophy that makes him want to kill and see to it that the truth prevails. This philosophy here often reminds me of Crime and Punishment without the long psychological analyses – and in fact, these analyses aren’t even missing here, they are hidden, in embryonic form, in the epilogue.

Another thing that makes this novel special to me is its atmosphere. I’m too lazy to look for specific examples, but the way Christie depicts the mounting tension, the unbearable claustrophobia, and the feelings of rising doubt, terror, and animosity is deeply terrifying.

And one more thing which I didn’t notice at first, but which became obvious through subsequent re-readings: this is a deeply ironic novel. It makes for some good (and comparatively light) fun in this dark novel to note how often and in how many different ways the murderer claims that the culprit can only be a dangerous maniac, while no-one has a clue that he’s talking about himself. I’m grateful for this irony here – even with that, this novel is terrifying, and I wouldn’t even like to imagine how it would be without it.

McTeague by Frank Norris


I read about this novel a long time ago in one of Stephen King’s books, and I was intrigued, so I looked it up and read it. And then read it once more a couple of years later despite the fact that stories like this devastate me: stories that explore the idea that everything is predetermined and that there’s nothing you can do to change your life. Devastation aside, though, I’m deeply interested in these kind of stories, especially American stories set at the end of the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th century, such as the works of Theodore Dreiser or Edith Wharton.

The novel is about a son of a miner turned dentist – he’s McTeague (and he doesn’t seem to have a first name). McTeague – a clumsy, somewhat slow-witted man who’s always lived in an instinctive way, with little or no regard or sensibility for the more sophisticated aspects of life – learns the art of dentistry from a traveling dentist, then moves to San Francisco, where he opens a practice and leads a life that satisfies him entirely. He works during the week, has a big lunch and some beer on Sunday and then dozes off or goes for a walk with his single closer acquaintance, Marcus.

Then one day, Marcus brings his cousin, Trina, to McTeague’s office because she fell of a swing and broke a tooth. McTeague spends weeks administering a complex treatment to the lovely young girl, and in the meantime, he falls in love with her – or rather, his deeper instincts arise upon coming into close contact with a woman for the first time in his life. Marcus himself has his eyes on Trina, but seeing that his passion is nothing compared to that of McTeague’s, he graciously steps aside and McTeague and Trina get married. Things work fine, but after a while McTeague is forced to give up his practice and from that moment on, it’s all downhill for the couple, in every sense of the word (financial, moral, emotional, and so on).

In the novel every character is a victim of their upbringing, their inherited traits and the unfavorable circumstances brought upon them by chance or by the ill will of others. For example, Trina kindles desires and needs in McTeague that are somewhat more sophisticated than his pure animal instincts, but as soon as their fate takes a turn for the worse, McTeague immediately reverts to his animal-like state and he even becomes worse than he used to be before meeting Trina. And as regards Trina: she’s always had a propensity for hoarding and always used to be stingy, but as time goes by, she becomes ever more miserly and her only joy remains clinging to her shiny silver and gold dollars.

And yes: here no-one can do anything about the fate determined by their family background and their various characteristics because their self-awareness and their ability to assess their circumstances is almost non-existent, so they are all forced to drift the way life takes them, and even if they are aware of some of their unfortunate traits (for example, Trina knows that she’s stingy), they only say: “I know I’m like this but at least this is a good fault.”

By the way, McTeague is a dirty-naturalist novel, even though Norris tends to stop before the most horrible details, and “only” says, for example, that “what came after that was horror itself”. And I’m glad he stops there and never succumbs to the temptation to roll around in the filth in a possibly l’art pour l’art fashion – not because I wouldn’t be able to stand it but because I think it’s a sign of taste: to know where to stop – because not everything needs to be written down.

Still, this novel feels somewhat too obvious and spoon-feeding to me, as I’m reading it through my 21st-century eyes. The symbols (the most important of which is gold, in all its forms) are just all too obvious and they are mentioned on every second page, so there’s no way you can miss Norris’ point; and the key sentences about each character are also repeated multiple times to hammer the meaning home – all this repetition bothers me a bit but it doesn’t make the novel unreadable.

I mentioned Theodore Dreiser in the beginning, and there’s indeed a lot of similarities between Norris and Dreiser (as far as I know, they both liked the other’s work). Norris, however, is far less convoluted and far more readable than Dreiser. Norris even said something to the effect: “Who cares about elaborate style? We want life, not literature.” And his novel fits this description: it’s not over-wrought, it’s easy to read, it’s often slightly sarcastic and not exactly “literary”. Based on this single book (I haven’t read anything else by him) I believe Norris didn’t earn his place in literary history with his unparalleled delicacy of style but this – as opposed to his serious spoon-feeding habit – doesn’t bother me at all.

Besides the story of the unavoidable demise of the characters, this novel is also an excellent portrait of an era. So even though the story makes me mad and depressed, I’m still interested in it because I like to learn how people lived in America towards the end of the 19th century, and Norris depicts this powerfully.

Cityboy by Geraint Anderson


Geraint Anderson worked in London’s financial district, the City for several years, and when he had had enough of that, he first wrote a series of anonymous articles for a magazine and then wrote this book to air the dirty laundry of the City.

This doesn’t sound half bad, however, Geraint Anderson isn’t exactly a master of truth-exposing, eye-opening writing, and he isn’t a present-day Dostoyevsky, either, someone capable of accessing all the hidden corners of the human heart and revealing just what kind of moral-killing and soul-crushing practices go on in the world. Anderson is a rather neutral, nothing-special writer – his writing lacks life and sparkle, he’s extremely repetitive, and his humor is forced and bland most of the time.

The subtitle – Beer and Loathing in the Square Mile – refers to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and indeed, Cityboy’s main character (Anderson himself) does drugs almost as enthusiastically and is paranoid almost to the same extent as Raoul Duke (or Hunter S. Thompson), but the similarities end here because – as opposed to Thompson – Anderson doesn’t possess a remarkable sense of humor or a truly feverish and insane imagination, moreover, he’s not as talented a writer as to be able to give sufficient shape to the creations of his ordinary imagination or his paranoid visions.

So as regards the debauchery, drug-doing, orgies and general assholery of the protagonist’s life as Cityboy – this story-line is painfully dull. Anderson, for example, relates how absolutely awful and embarrassing it was when he – totally shitfaced and wasted – ran into his future boss who was accompanying his daughter to the Glastonbury Festival, and yes: I can imagine that meeting your boss when you’re shitfaced can be quite awful and embarrassing, but it’s sure as hell that Anderson isn’t able to make me feel how and why this was awful for him. That’s it for the hard-partying stock-broker story-line then.

The other main story-line is the truth-exposing and soul-searching one. It’s about the dark deeds of banks, stock exchanges, and all kinds of other institutions in the money business; and about how the once normal people who work in this business all become amoral, inhuman, extremely competitive zombies, working 70 hours a week, equally obsessed with making and wasting money. Oh well – yes, I believe it can be like this, this life, but it’s nothing I didn’t already know, and more importantly: the way Anderson narrates this, it doesn’t make me experience neither the 70-hour workweeks, nor anything else.

Anderson, by the way, quit the money business a while ago, and in the afterword he says that, after all, it’s not money that matters, but love, family and friends. Yeah, sure. And this isn’t a sarcastic “yeah, sure”. This isn’t a sign of my agreement, either. This is a sign of my complete lack of interest.

Anyway, Anderson is not without brains, and he possesses a minimal amount of self-irony, too. And the things he says about the workings of the banking world are most probably true, and those things could normally throw me straight into a fit of rage and despair. However, this book doesn’t induce rage or despair in me, and I cannot work myself up into a fit because Anderson – regardless of his topic – can’t kindle any sort of emotion in me, save indifference. But at least I learned that when a boring writer talks about exciting or unsettling topics, the result is still boring.

The Dinner by Herman Koch


Herman Koch’s novel deals with interesting topics, and it’s not a bad novel, I just can’t decide what Koch wanted with all this. (What could the poet have wanted to say? And if he wanted to say that, why didn’t he just go ahead and say it?)

Theoretically – I think – this is a novel about moral dilemmas with some cynical criticism about modern life as a side dish. After a while, though, it seems more like a rather terrifying and morbid story of insanity (something in the same vein as Jenn Ashworth’s A Kind of Intimacy or Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy) than a story about moral choices. I’ll get to why this bothers me, but first a bit about the story.

The framework of the novel is a dinner, during which two brothers and their wives – after a whole lot of sidetracks and deliberate avoidance of the topic – finally get to talk about the thing that’s on their mind. The question is this: what, if anything, should they do about the unfortunate situation that on a drunken night out, their kids (two boys of 15) killed a homeless woman who was sheltering in front of a cash machine and thus prevented the kids from being able to withdraw money?

During the conversation, the parents touch upon several serious and highly ambiguous topics. They discuss how much a homeless person’s life is worth compared to the life of an upper middle class boy; who might be accountable for the actions of a couple of underage boys; and whether parents are supposed to be punished for the actions of their children.

All this moralizing is a little bit too direct and not intriguing enough for me – what’s more interesting is the investigation of the motivations of the individual parents, and the question why some of the parents want to keep this event a secret, and why some of them want to come out in the open. And then there’s a kind of solution, which is, again, not too compelling.

And it’s not too compelling because as the story moves on, more and more emphasis is laid on the fact that the narrator, Paul (one of the fathers) suffers from some kind of mental illness, and the moral questions suddenly seem of secondary importance compared to his illness. I have mixed feelings about this. I partly feel that it’s a rather cheap solution to toss up all the big and serious ethical questions and then basically say: “But Paul is sick in the mind, so the questions aren’t even valid.” Partly, though, the depiction of Paul’s mental state is unsettling and terrifying, and being in his mind and seeing the world through his eyes is a truly uncomfortable literary experience (and this I mean positively).

Still – it might have been better (for me definitely) to choose between the ethical tale and the story of an insanity and write only one of them. It would have made for a stronger novel.