Political thrillers can be difficult beasts to contain and even harder to love. For all the machinations and calculations of John LeCarre’s George Smiley, and any of the glossy paperback covers produced by Tom Clancy or James Patterson, the success of the story depends on content rather than context. The basic sustenance of political thrillers, crime thrillers, or basic suspense drama is based on the reader’s deeper understanding of the world rather than the writer’s ability to build new ones. Those who specialize in political thrillers have loyal core audiences, heroes they can bring through a variety of high-wired scenarios, and they proceed with the assurance that success is based on developing the formula rather than creating a world.
It’s with this understanding that many readers might encounter Nathan Englander’s Dinner at the Center of the Earth. The question isn’t what he is doing here but rather why he wants to do it. Those familiar with Englander’s previous work (including the short story collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges and the novel The Ministry of Special Cases) understand that his work has heretofore concerned itself with the inner loves of old and new world Orthodox Jews. With Dinner at the Center of the Earth, Englander takes on the demands of the political thriller. He has worked before in the realms of dirty little wars and desperate situations in lonely international hot spots. Now, though, the stakes seem to be much colder, more clinical, and detached in a way that makes the end result less satisfying than it could have been.
This is a demanding novel, one of those texts that operates on several levels but does not necessarily prove successful in all of them. Set between 2002 and 2014, we follow Prisoner Z, an American spy for Israel. We learn how he ends up accused of treason and locked away in an Israeli prison. There’s the General, modeled after Israeli leader Ariel Sharon, and there’s the Nurse, mother of Prisoner Z’s guard, tangentially connected with the loosely developed narrative strains and determined to keep secrets.
Dinner at the Center of the Earth is about the seemingly doomed peace process in the Middle East, about Israeli Intelligence and Parisian waiters who are certainly not what they seem to be. In mood it recalls Richard Powers’ Plowing the Dark and the best cold, clinical precision in the work of Don Delillo. What separates Dinner at the Center of the Earth from key works by Powers and Delillo is the fact that Englander manages to be more emotional, even with the clinical mood. In the midst of the Second Intifada in Israel, 2002-2014, Jews kill Palestines because Palestines have killed Jews and there’s no ability to embrace empathy. There can be no balance in a world solely populated by avengers.
Something has gone wrong when we first meet Prisoner Z. Was he a spy? What had he done for Israel? Why had he done it? “He now sees his actions as a crime of political passion, undertaken in a desperate, last-ditch fugue state and driven by his good-hearted intent to do what’s right.” Circling around the reasoning of how Z got to this state, Englander allows his hero to contemplate several scenarios about the motivations of his captors, none of which would end in his favor:
“Z figures what they’re really fighting over is the pleasure of being the one whom Z would see coming, of getting to witness the very real dread he would feel as he recognized the person sent to murder him with great brutality…”
Apparently modeled on a certain “Prisoner X”, an Australian-born Missad agent found dead in an Israeli prison, our hero is the prototypical “nice Jewish boy” from Long Island who winds up imprisoned in the Negev Desert for a dozen years, held in a state that is equal parts existential and limbo. Englander switches narratives and time frames so that at one point we’re following the doomed downward trajectory of Prisoner X, and then we follow the bloody history of Israel through the newsreels running in the General’s head. It’s a literary novel enveloped by a spy thriller with sprinklings of love and allegory for added flavor. The reader without any understanding of Prisoner X might be a little vague as to the motivations of Prisoner Z, but remembering the importance of empathy as vital to the essence and survival of humanity is simply common sense. If there’s an implicit political message and agenda in Dinner at the Center of the Earth, it’s the importance of a two-state solution.
Englander wants us to think about limbo, not particularly an element of Jewish theology so much as life itself in a war-torn country where every move is measured and nobody can ever be trusted as truly friendly or truly antagonistic. Here is Englander imposing himself on hero in Paris, 2002, as the latter contemplates the fate about to come his way:
“If only Z had known in his perfect lovely rooms in Paris what he’d come to know in his single cell hidden… somewhere in the desert… what true boredom felt like and true loneliness-true limbo… to be locked up, hidden away without hope. If he’d tasted real madness at that point, he’d not have decided he was so bored…”
Therein lies the difficulty at the core of either appreciating or understanding Dinner at the Center of the Earth. How do we portray boredom, ennui, malaise, and limbo without bringing the reader into a vortex where nothing happens and no conventional resolution is ever reached? Z informs Farid, a Palestinian agent, of his motivations:
“I’m going to protect my side by trying to fix an imbalance that cannot and should not be maintained.”
It is the doomed, fragmented structure Englander embraces as the framework for Dinner at the Center of the Earth that effectively mirrors the mission of Prisoner Z. He understands his mission is hopeless. At the same time, the comatose General (as real-life Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon himself found himself) recalls (which we may or may not trust as verbatim) a message from Israeli founding father David Ben-Gurion:
“Don’t stop. Don’t stop until our neighbors get the message. Don’t stop until killing a Jew becomes too expensive for even the rich and profligate man. That is your whole purpose on this earth… Make it a rare and fine delicacy for those with a taste for Jewish blood.”
It can be difficult and controversial to base a character on a specifically dynamic, divisive character like Sharon. However history paints the perpetrators of massacres in Qibya and Beirut is of no real concern for a writer like Nathan Englander. The goal of creating The General, so clearly inspired by Sharon, is to build an archetype rather than fictionalize a reality. The General is a hybrid, an archetype, an allegory who served to raise Dinner at the Center of the Earth from the realms of thinly-veiled fictional journalism into something bigger. If this is a fable, and Nathan Englander is a fabulist swirling in the realms of slightly magical realism, then the way these “facts” are presented is suitable and effective.
It may be trite to call Dinner at the Center of the Earth a fable for our times, something ripped from international espionage headlines, an examination of a doomed Middle East policy that started horribly in the late ’40s and never found a balance. Nevertheless, in Englander’s sure hands it all works. The unspeakably incomprehensible becomes mind-numbingly routine. Prisoner Z is kept alive in a condition where time means nothing, status is stripped bare, and connections to what one once was is rendered meaningless. The life of this anonymous General clearly echoes Ariel Sharon’s, but again the reader would be best forewarned to steer clear of any absolute comparisons. We are led to believe that the tunnels between Israel and Gaza are what inspired the title, and the image is fitting. None of these characters seem suited to ever really negotiating anything above ground and in the light of day, both literally and figuratively.
As it comes to a close and the reader has an opportunity to digest this meal, Dinner at the Center of the Earth feels strongest in these moments when it becomes clear that no meal served, no matter the location or content, will ever be enough. Again, the fact that it’s hard to warm to this book and its characters is only indicative of the fact that the writer has met his objective. The tangled web takes a while to prove fully realized, but when it does, the willing reader will be rewarded. Englander creates a world here where avenging injustices and never backing down — from both sides — will only result in spontaneous combustion. History and military conflicts are strongly conveyed in the context of novels like Dinner at the Center of the Earth and a writer like Englander, willing and able to be precise and methodical, can create cold characters without surrendering their humanity.