Staff Book Review: Dinner at the Center of the Earth

The Arabic name for Jerusalem is Al-Quds, and the Arabic name for Temple Mount is Haram al-Sharif. (I could have begun, “The Hebrew name for….”) The double-naming underscores the confusion and complexity that is Israel-Palestine.

The so-called Israeli-Palestinian conflict confounds policymakers, diplomats, government officials, citizens. The situation, if this is the appropriate word, resists simplicity because, to put this simply, historical consensus—what happened and who is at fault—is impossible.

But what, if not their land, do Israelis and Palestinians share?

book cover for "Dinner at the Center of the Earth"

Heartbroken by the conflict, Nathan Englander investigates the failure of solution in his second novel, “Dinner at the Center of the Earth.” Unlike his previous short story collections (“For the Relief of Unbearable Urges” and “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank“) and novel (“The Ministry of Special Cases“), Englander’s latest work, not unlike his subject, defies categorization or genre. A plot-driven political and spy thriller, a love story, a farce—this novel is an admirable literary combination but fails to compel. The humor falls flat: what’s the joke and where’s the punchline, I thought. The dialogue, despite a few enticing passages, is stilted, wooden, even cliché. The discontinuous timeline and various threads Englander attempts to interweave are strained, rushed. The fits and starts, so to speak, never resolve.

Writers change and their readers resist this change, so dare I hope Englander walks away from plot?

Lest I’ve made the novel unattractive, let me sketch the plot. In 2002, during the the Second Intifada, an Israeli spy betrays his country playing tit for tat on a global scale. (One side kills the other, and then the victimized side retaliates.) Here, Englander flirts with the writerly preoccupation of giving individuals outsized, universal roles. Once he’s found out, the spy becomes known as Prisoner Z, who is based on the real Prisoner X, the Australian-born Israeli spy who disclosed secret intelligence to an Iranian businessman. Swinging from 2002 to 2014 throughout, the novel also depicts the comatose imaginings the General, who, in limbo, recounts Israel’s past and imagines its future. Their tales play alongside others’ — the General’s assistant, Ruthi; Prisoner Z’s guard; the pre-captured spy’s Parisian waitress; Farid, a Palestinian funding anti-settlement activism — but Prisoner Z’s and the General’s similar incarcerations give the novel its force, its poignancy. Prisoner Z’s erasure via imprisonment and the General’s absence via a coma operate as useful allegories: what real or perceived entrapments have Israelis and Palestinians endured or imagined? How to escape? Is there escape?

Englander, I think, argues for love and empathy, but for me, his narrative is an exercise in repetition. We’ve heard these calls for compassion before. Maybe that’s the point: we need to hear them again. But I feel his novel presupposes a solution he never provides, which may be another point: that there is no solution.

In short, the stories of the real, late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Prisoner X are more instructive than Englander’s fiction. (Which is perhaps, forgive me, another point: that fiction, or at least Englander’s fiction, doesn’t intend to instruct or inform.)