‘Dinner at the Center of the Earth,’ by Nathan Englander
Nathan Englander’s second novel, ‘Dinner at the Center of the Earth,’ evokes the specter of Ariel Sharon. And a whole lot more.
In “A Horse Walks Into a Bar,” David Grossman’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel, Dovaleh Greenstein stages, under the pretext of a standup comedy set, a moral reckoning, a public wrestling match with his demons, which of necessity are also, in part, Israel’s demons. On a dingy stage in a dingy bar in the dingy (in Dovaleh’s assessment) city of Netanya, the jokeas-breakdown concerns not only family history — Holocaust-maddened mother; oppressive, violent father — but national history too, a crossexamination of the country’s experience, replete with army training camps for adolescents, and its intersection with individual lives in the process of desperate survival.
“Horse” is a master class in tone, in tonal shifts and tonal combinations, a marvelously succinct set piece that, in its precarious, nearly stifling intimacy, manages the feat of being tender and sad and heart-achingly funny. I mention it now because it haunted my reading of Nathan Englander’s new novel, “Dinner at the Center of the Earth,” another book set mostly in Israel, another attempt to drill down into individual consciousness against the context of a country that is profoundly significant and potentially uninhabitable and occasionally morally hazardous.
Englander first came to the reading public’s attention in 1999 with the publication of “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges,” which might be somewhat reductively summarized as a collection of stories about the inner lives — a little bit dirty, furtive and guilty, surprisingly relatable — of Orthodox Jews. Englander chronicled his characters, including an unloved husband requesting a rabbinical dispensation to visit a prostitute for the eponymous relief and a woman driven to contemplating the murder of the husband who has refused to grant her a divorce for eighteen years, with a light touch, a sympathetically amused eye, attuned to the absurdities of their situations. The masterstroke of the stories was this: although the predicaments of Englander’s people were often intimately connected to their orthodoxy, their response was simply human. It isn’t that Englander was above ridiculing these characters; it was that he would not make them ridiculous. The stories, with their whiff of shtetl fable, their convincing mixture of parable and realism, were winning and widely lauded.
Englander’s second collection of stories, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” brought more influences to the table. As the titular story suggests, Raymond Carver was a clear precursor, though Englander took Carver’s economy and ran with it into curious corners, once more casting a tight but soft net around Orthodox Jews and their troubles: the dawning realization, say, that one’s husband would not, were he a Gentile and in the event of another Holocaust, be very righteous; the fantastical confrontation with childhood rabbis, one’s disappointed mother, and a hugely pregnant, homebound wife, all naked, during an impulsive visit to a peep show. The stories occasionally flirted with misplaced whimsy, with overly and overtly precious handling, but they were on the whole mordant and elegant.
“Dinner at the Center of the Earth” is Englander’s second novel. Like his first, “The Ministry of Special Cases,” which focused on the