I’d Say That I Want To Punch The Dinner In The Face, But Then People Might Think I’m One Of Those Violent And Empathy-Deficient Asperger’s Types

April 18, 2013




In theory, The Dinner, Dutch writer Herman Koch’s internationally bestselling and much ballyhooed novel, was right up my alley. Dark and twisted? Sign me up! A brutal satire of bourgeois mores, or lack thereof? Be still my snotty proletarian heart!

I immediately logged into my Toronto Public Library account and put a hold on the book, because the only thing I love more than sinister satire is tending to my immaculately curated hold list at TPL (and because all the cool kids memorize their library card numbers and check on their account status multiple times a day). Late last week, the magical and perfect library dropped a copy of the book into my hot little hands.

It all started so well. While I didn’t think that The Dinner was entirely living up to the massive hype surrounding it, I was enjoying the book and was tearing through it, eager to learn more about the terrible incident at the heart of the matter and to find out how Koch’s collection of imperfect characters would handle it. And then, on page 185, something terrible happened.

That’s the page on which Paul, the book’s semi-reliable narrator who has been oscillating wildly between dickish and violent outbursts, goes to see a psychologist. That’s the page on which this paragraph shows up:

The psychologist had mentioned a name. A German-sounding name. It was the surname of the neurologist who’d had this particular disorder named after him.

My immediate reaction was a Tony Harrison-esque “Oh here we fucking go…”

Then I caught myself. This was clearly just part of the satire, right? A riff on the way that middle and upper class white dudes use Asperger’s as an excuse to be giant, unabashed assholes?

A quick Google search told me that I was giving Koch far too much credit.

 Here’s what he told Untitled Books about Paul’s disorder:

“It was going to be a real affliction, and then I thought if I name it in the book, then it’s no longer fiction. People will think it’s this or that, and then doctors will say actually in this condition people are not really that aggressive. Of course I had in mind something like Asperger’s, and the indifference to human suffering that entails. But Paul goes beyond that: let’s say he’s very active in his lack of empathy.”

And here’s what he said about it in an interview for the Delft University of Technology:

 “I was deliberately vague about that. I considered certain autistic disorders, particularly Asperger’s. After all, he is rather indifferent about what happens to other people. But if I had stated this explicitly in the book, people would have said, ‘That’s a very crude caricature, people with Asperger’s don’t behave as aggressively and unpredictably as this fictional character!’ I had no wish to engage in discussions of that kind. However, I did consult an expert about whether someone’s DNA might show clear evidence of such disorders. He told me that this is not yet possible, but that it will be in five years’ time. So that’s the only bit of science fiction in the whole book.”

So, you know, he wasn’t explicitly saying that Paul had Aspeger’s. But obviously he was thinking about Asperger’s. He didn’t want to come out and name it, though, because then people might get all uppity about the characterization.

That’s when The Dinner went from a book that wasn’t to be taken lightly to a book that wasn’t to be taken lightly Dorothy Parker-style.

I finished reading it, because I have an obsessive need to finish books, even when they’re awful and written by Charlaine Harris, but it sucked all of the fun out of it for me. Suddenly, the whole experiment felt incredibly half-assed and facile. The nature vs nurture theme reminded me of something I would have written in high school (or at least somethingI would have written in high school if there’d been an awesome Skinny Puppy on the topic to quote at length).

I’m all for fiction and creative license. Really. My verisimilitude preferences are pretty flexible. They’re probably more strident than those of the most out-there aesthete, but they’re certainly more open than my otherwise Aspergian need for rules and order would suggest. There’s a difference, though, between indulging your muse and letting it run wild like an overly permissive parent who doesn’t want their special snowflake hampered in any way.

Koch didn’t explicitly name the disorder because he didn’t want to engage in discussions about whether or not his portrayal of Paul was a crude caricature, or just plain wrong. Which is just a really fancy way of saying that he didn’t want to do any fucking research. He could have at least checked the Wikipedia page on autism spectrum disorders. He could have googled “Asperger’s and empathy” and figured out that he was completely off base in his random assertions. But he didn’t feel like it.

Aesthetically, my issue with what Koch has done is that it’s unrepentantly half-assed and that that laziness affects the quality of the book as a whole. The diagnosis just shows up, out of nowhere, on page 185. It doesn’t appear as part of an unveiling or unravelling carefully orchestrated by a brilliant writer. It just appears, completely unannounced, two thirds of the way into the book. It’s basically “Hey guys! Paul has non-Asperger’s Asperger’s now, ok?”

Now I’m not saying that there needs to be some sort of reverse Chekhovian rule along the lines of “If you’re going to diagnose somebody with an ASD on page 185, then you’re going to have to show some hand flapping in the first act,” but any relevant foreshadowing whatsoever in The Dinner would have been nice. There’s absolutely nothing in the entire book that even begins to hint at the diagnosis that Paul will eventually receive, though. The only even vaguely autistic issue that Paul has is a minor problem with stimuli. That also shows up on page 185, a few paragraphs before that neurologist with the German-sounding name is mentioned. And it’s never referenced again. Which, I suppose, is the problem with making up your own version of something and pretty blatantly alluding to it while not giving a shit if it’s accurate or not. It makes you look almost as incompetent at writing as you are at researching.

On a personal level, I am just so completely and utterly sick of this shit. Somehow, Asperger’s became the hot new thing for characters to almost have. Writers sure seem to love making up characters who embody all of the stereotypes of Asperger’s and high functioning autism, but they just hate having to deal with all of the research and the not being a petulant child about creative freedom and the potential repercussions that come with actually saying that a character is on the spectrum. And so they just don’t name it and they do whatever the hell they want and apparently that’s super cool.

Except that it’s not cool at all if you are a real human being who already has to deal with the stereotypes surrounding your disability. Because now you have to deal with all of the bullshit characters and stories that are based on bullshit stereotypes about your disability on top of dealing with the bullshit stereotypes about your disability. And the writers themselves don’t have to do much of anything, because they didn’t want to be tied down by facts, man! And so they’re not.

It’s not cool when the writers play around with Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory and make him embody every obvious autism trope ever but refrain from actually diagnosing him so that they can have all sorts of fun at the character’s expense without officially looking like ableist dicks. As much as I otherwise love Community and Abed, it’s not cool when they refrain from diagnosing him in the name of creative freedom, either.

I certainly sympathize with the desire to avoid conversations about Asperger’s and empathy and stereotypes and whether I’m getting it all wrong, because I have to have them all the time and they’re frequently infuriating. On the other hand, though, I have to have frequently infuriating conversations about Asperger’s and empathy and whether I’m getting it all wrong all the time, so I have no fucking sympathy for anyone who just chooses to bypass that step because they can and they wanna. Especially when it’s at my expense.

I don’t need any more white, ostensibly neurotypical men with more privelege in life and in art than I can ever hope to have exploiting me and people like me and then whining about how they shouldn’t have to deal with the consequences of exploiting me and people like me. If you want to trade in on the cultural cache that currently surrounds Asperger’s, then have the balls to admit it and face the discussion that comes with that, both positive and negative. And do a modicum of research, for fuck’s sake. I’m not saying that you have to nail every single symptom and character trait. I’m just saying that you should probably get at least one thing right.

Herman Koch doesn’t do that with The Dinner. He presents Paul as a man who really has no empathy and is prone to fits of brutal and uncontrollable violence. And then he randomly assigns him a disorder named after a German-sounding neurologist. Which can be treated with medication.

None of those things have anything to do with Asperger’s. I don’t even know where he got most of that shit from. Someone who learned all they know about Asperger’s from post-Newtown tweets would know more about AS than Koch appears to know.

So why shouldn’t he have to “engage in discussions of that kind?” Why shouldn’t people say that it’s a very crude caricature and that people with Asperger’s don’t behave as aggressively and unpredictably as this fictional character? It is and we don’t. The fact that he didn’t explicitly drop the A-bomb does nothing to distance us from that stigma. It doesn’t save us from having to talk about his stupid book.

And I am going to have to talk about his stupid book. People are going to ask me what I think about it. Some people are even going to ask me if I’m like Paul. Then I’m going to have to handle those awkward social situations with my imperfect social skills.

I’m going to have to carefully monitor my every move, lest I give someone the impression that I’m going to fantasize about bashing their face in and/or actually bash their face in just like Paul.

And I’m also going to have to bite my tongue and prevent myself from saying “Why would you read that tripe? I mean, if you want to laugh at rich people, rent The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. If you want viciously dark humour about horrible people, watch Nighty Night. And if you want a good story told by an unreliable narrator who slowly reveals his abominable actions, then read Lolita like a grown up” because I can’t be perpetuating that old nugget about people with Asperger’s being rude and pedantic, either.


10 Responses to “I’d Say That I Want To Punch The Dinner In The Face, But Then People Might Think I’m One Of Those Violent And Empathy-Deficient Asperger’s Types”

  1. Laurie Says:

    Thanks for the warning and the recommendations at the end. I too have my library card memorized for quick access to holds and wish lists.

    Can you imagine if the author had taken a similar approach to an ethnic stereotype and then refused to name it so that made it all ok? It is an unconscionable approach to truth and literature.

  2. Karen Says:

    I’m actually right here – wavering around page 192, because I had to look into this page 185 mess. Like you, I’m going to finish the book… but I feel like this one paragraph (and then the follow up investigation) has left me slightly deflated. So glad to find someone of similar position!

  3. andi brown Says:

    I too was shocked when I reached the page that alluded to to a link between what was obviously meant to Asperger’s and a proclivity for violence. I thought this piece on it outstanding. I’m going to tweet it. Check it out: https://twitter.com/andibrownauthor

  4. Saw this thru Andi’s tweet – oddly I had just finished reading the book. I was also surprised and appalled by the author’s take on Asperger’s. As you say, why not at least take a quick look at Wikipedia? This book’s presentation is especially harmful given what so much of the public (even some special ed teachers!) believe about autism.

  5. Leah Says:

    Very eloquently stated. Just plowed through the pg. 185 debacle and so disappointed. Very much how I feel, as a lifetime severe asthmatic, about wimpy characters in movies and TV taking a puff of their inhalers when they experience anxiety.

  6. Erin Hardin Says:

    Very well put. I’ve been scouring the internet for some alternative neurological disorder that he could possibly have meant, thinking, “It sounds like he’s referring to Asperger’s, but he couldn’t possibly be because this is nothing like Asperger’s.” Like you basically said, he did just enough to imply that Paul had Asperger’s without making Paul actually like anyone with Asperger’s that I’ve ever encountered (if he had just left out the part about the name of the syndrome I probably wouldn’t have jumped to the conclusion that he was referring to Asperger’s). I did enjoy the book and thought Koch’s pacing and building up of suspense was well done, however I think his allusion to an Asperger’s- type syndrome (that really looks nothing like Asperger’s) was a mistake and just plain stupid. Make Paul impulsive. Give him a temper problem. Even give him a neurological disorder, but either make it fictional or real. Don’t give people without any real knowledge of Asperger’s a list of characteristics that don’t actually apply.

  7. Saah Says:

    Hi! I just read the dinner and came across your blog because I too was disturbed and distracted by this part of the book! While I didn’t mind the book before this point, I really became distracted after reading this section. I literally just couldn’t stop thinking about what the hell he was talking about. I wasn’t sure if he was referring to a real condition (which I knew couldn’t be detected in utero) without naming it, or whether he was just making it up. It was incredibly weird and distracting in a novel which is so clearly set in the modern world. (or the very recent past).
    I feel like I was very put off by Paul and the psychiatrist discussing the choice to not have children because of his mystery disease, or that his parents would have aborted him had then had the right technology. When one can see the connection to Asperger’s, that’s an incredibly offensive idea!
    I also just felt like it was such a lazy choice, and not even a great one in general. I feel like it would have been a stronger choice to have Paul be a sociopath, or a narcissist, which would also be way more in character with the way he wrote the actual character! I felt like the blaming his violent behavior on some weirdo genetic disorder took the blame away from his choices and personality, not to mention his son’s actions. Disappointing both as a reader and as a human.
    Anyway, I enjoyed your entry and it was great to read something from the point of view of someone on the autism spectrum. This left a bad taste in the my mouth and I wondered how other people felt about it!

  8. Anne Says:

    Thanks for calling out this asshat. I love how, on top of alluding to Asperger’s in the book, the author specifically mentions it in interviews — so that of course we all know what P is supposed to “have.” But by omitting the condition’s actual name IN THE BOOK, he thinks he can put any flaws in his portrayal of it beyond discussion.

    And why the heck does the narrator have to HAVE some specific condition? Isn’t enough that we see his personality playing out as the book evolves? Does the author think that readers won’t believe in that type of cruelty, if it doesn’t have a name?

    Also, the author’s interview comment about “Asperger’s, and the indifference to human suffering [that] that entails,” makes me want to cry.

  9. Sue Says:

    I read your comments with great interest. I believe the author in “The Dinner” was referring to Fahr’s Syndrome. An
    autosomal dominant genetic neurological disease that is very rare and has no treatment outside of drugs to control symptoms. This neurological condition was named after a German neurologist. Asperger was Austrian.

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