There are a lot of people trying to escape in Nathan Englander’s Dinner at the Center of the Earth. In some cases, characters are trying to escape problems of their own making. In others, they’re trapped by someone else’s will. Watching these characters run as fast as they can and, mostly, get nowhere was a simultaneously frustrating and educational reading experience.
There is one man at the center of this novel: the General. The General is never given any other name but we know that he is a major figure in recent Israeli history and politics. After he suffers a stroke, his mind drifts through his past victories (as he would call them) and his sorrows. The General’s exploits include the Qibya Massacre and the Sabra and Shatila Massacres. As we learn more about the General, we also learn about the plight of Prisoner Z, the irritations of his reluctant guard, the stubbornness of the General’s almost-like-family-assistant, and—later in the novel—a waitress and a mapmaker who got caught in the ripples of the General’s actions.
This book might have been a thriller, but it has a more literary feel. The plots move slowly and focus more on what the characters’ feel. There’s also a very hazy feeling to the scenes that made me feel like I was drifting with the General as he recalled his life or with Prisoner Z, who is slowly losing his mind in his prison cell somewhere in the Negev desert. This haziness and focus on emotional development creates an experience where I ended up thinking more about the unintended consequences of the General’s and Prisoner Z’s actions than about the original actions.
The theme of unintended consequences is reiterated by the waitress, the mapmaker, and Prisoner Z. The history of Israel and Palestine, even before Israel became a state, is full of tit for tat retaliation. An action was later avenged, which then itself had to be revenged by the original actor. For more than fifty years, Israelis and Palestinians have been killing each other. People are avenging and fighting over things that happened before they were even born at this point, including some of the characters in Dinner at the Center of the Earth. Over and over in this book, characters have the opportunity to meet each other in the middle—literally and metaphorically—only to fail to reach detente.
Which leads me back to my original observation that the characters in this book are all attempting to escape something. They are invariably trying to feel the consequences of Israel and Palestine’s long conflict, as embodied by the General. And they can’t do it. They can’t escape because their entire world is built on perpetuating the fighting.
Dinner at the Center of the Earth is a book that I didn’t understand at first. (I have my doubts that I actually got what these stories are trying to tell me.) Only later did the various plots and scenes started to make sense. This is the kind of novel that one has to sleep on (though I did appreciate the waitress’ role very much as I was reading). This is a sneaky novel.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 5 September 2017.