Nathan Englander’s works have a kind of magic about them. “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges” and the remarkable “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” his two collections of short stories, along with his achingly beautiful Kafka-esque novel, “The Ministry of Special Cases,” are testament to this.
Englander has been called a fabulist more often than not. “Dinner at the Center of the Earth,” his second novel, only serves to support that claim.
Fabulism is a kind of magical realism in which fantastical elements are placed into an everyday setting. Fabulism is, essentially, the literary fable. Aesop wrote them.
In our country, Herman Melville wrote a great one in “The Confidence Man,” to which Englander’s new novel bears more than a striking resemblance, down to its final moments. Englander, however, remains more magnanimous about the future than Melville can allow himself to be about the black site that is his Mississippi riverboat.
Like Melville’s, Nathan Englander’s fables ask really big questions. “Dinner at the Center of the Earth” is filled with major ironies. A great deal of it, for example, takes place in what is still called The Promised Land. Englander finds only contradiction there. He knows there are far too many ways of looking at the region to think of it as being anything but a kind of limbo.
Not that limbo for Englander isn’t as outlandishly funny as it is often alarming as it is ever hopeful.
A prisoner is held at a black site in the Negev desert in 2014. That limbo is a small room with a guard and three cameras recording everything. He is only Prisoner Z; that’s what he is called, for he doesn’t really exist on any manner of radar. He was once an ordinary American Jewish boy from Long Island. Now an Israeli spy and traitor, “he is a human typo soon to be whited out from his line.”
A military officer is in another kind of limbo. The General — think, perhaps, Ariel Sharon — is in a coma in 2014, suffering from a stroke that will, after nearly a decade, kill him. In his coma, The General is haunted by words he remembers from David Ben Gurion: “That is your sole purpose on this earth … You, put here solely to raise the bounty hung on the Jewish head. Make it expensive. Make it a rare and fine delicacy for those with a taste for Jewish blood.”
Prisoner Z, writing to this man responsible for his being “erased,” tells The General: “We are birds of a feather, me and you … You did what you needed to rescue the people even when they didn’t know they needed to be saved. We are the same, you and I.”
That is the premise of Englander’s fable, which finds its two astonishing forces trying to break out of their respective limbos.
The novel moves from America to Jerusalem, from Berlin to Paris, from Gaza to Capri. Time moves back and forth almost at will. Characters come and go, too, in various guises as the novel moves knowingly towards the dinner — at once as real as it is metaphorical — of the title.
“Dinner at the Center of the Earth” is not the usual thriller. In the hands of a master like Nathan Englander it becomes a fable of and for our times, a fable that encourages us to meet “in the middle of our middle. In the center of our dinner at the center of the earth.”
Steven Whitton is a recently retired Professor of English.