The world will not take it

September 21, 2017

Dinner at the Center of the Earth by Nathan EnglanderNathan Englander won the 2012 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award for What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. This phenomenal story collection also was a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize. It was my initial exposure to Englander’s work and drove me to read his first novel, another impressive effort, The Ministry of Special Cases about Argentina’s Dirty War and the disappeared children. His new novel, Dinner at the Center of the Earth, similarly deals with a difficult political topic, that being the relentless violence caused by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the Gaza Strip. In one of the novel’s many memorable scenes, an Israeli prime minister says to his General: “They kill one of ours and you run off like Samson to bring back a hundred heads. The world will not take it. The enemy’s losses are too great.” The General replies: Then let them stop killing the one. Let them stay on their sides of the borders and I will stay home and sit on my hands.”

While the conflict may be the heart of the novel and its important message, espionage, betrayal and romance drive the plot, focused on the life of a Jewish American boy from Long Island. We first come to know him as Prisoner Z, isolated in an Israeli desert cell and disappeared from existence. The reason for imprisonment takes place 12 years earlier, when he’s working as an Israeli operative for the Mossad in Berlin. He’s an undercover junk electronics dealer with a shipment stuck in Egyptian customs. A Palestinian import-export dealer comes to the rescue. He offers an additional opportunity to move merchandise into Gaza. The Israeli intelligence operation succeeds, but the outcome offends Prisoner Z’s moral conscience, driving him to commit treason. He hides in Paris to save his life and recklessly gets romantically involved with an Italian waitress.

Author Nathan Englander creates captivating reading with the events that take this unusual protagonist from Paris to the Israeli desert. Meanwhile, that General I quoted earlier suffers a stroke and lies comatose in a Tel Aviv hospital. He’s the only one, other than a guard, who knows the whereabouts of Prisoner Z. The parts of the novel devoted to the General drop us into his unconscious thoughts that shuttle dreamlike between military confrontations with the Palestinians, meetings with historic Israeli notables Moshe Dayan and David Ben Gurion, and an incident with his son. The General’s loyal assistant, the mother of the young man guarding Prisoner Z, hovers at her boss’s bedside, honoring his years of great leadership.

This multilayered drama plays out in a colorful and also profound patchwork of chapters stitched together in European and Israeli locations. What results is a fascinating political thriller but also a story with an obvious agenda about the need for peace in Gaza. It’s a worthy agenda but would serve the novel’s remarkable storyline better – and more powerfully – with a lighter, subtle touch.  Also, a note of consideration: If you’re unfamiliar with the Gaza conflict, you’ll need to keep Wikipedia handy to fully understand the General’s life and Prisoner Z’s purpose.

Recommending short story collections always feels risky. They aren’t a popular choice among readers. Rarely does a short story collection appear on the best-seller list. (Exceptions that come to mind are the stories of Nobel Laureate Alice Munro and The Stories of John Cheever.) Put another way, I’ve never met a reader who said they stayed up all night reading short stories.

Even so, story collections continue to hold a firm place in literary publishing, with the industry releasing respectable numbers of collections by new and known authors every year.* One of them, in the “new” category for this year, is The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead by Chanelle Benz, who creatively employs elements of crime and mystery in her assorted plots.

An example is a story that takes place at a monastery in the 16th century. An English monk must denounce his abbot and deny his vow of obedience. That’s because Thomas Cromwell is at work, declaring the king’s supremacy over the church. The destruction of the monk’s beloved home and livelihood challenges his faith and, later, drives him to take unholy revenge.

In another story, this one set in the 19th century, children attempt to reunite an aging, beautiful woman with her one and only true love, a man whom she says turned out to be quite mad. “It was a bad plan,” the children tell us. “A wicked plan. We did not know if it came from us or the Devil so full was it of deceit.”

These collected stories are mini page-turning dramas that sparkle in their diversity of settings, including not only England during the reign of Henry the VIII, but also 19th century American cowboy towns, the 21st century Middle East and a future created by climate change. The characters are widows, thieves, holy men, siblings and survivalists. They are colorful, and we care about them, which increases our need to learn their fates.

In one story set during the present day, a girl leaves home to do missionary work in the Middle East; however, an instance of violence causes her to join forces with a brutal, manipulative mercenary. She trains as a sniper and assumes different identities. Sections of the story are disturbing but skillfully handled to keep us focused on the worry of what will happen to her.

One of the most powerful stories builds toward moral outrage and violence in the pre-Civil War South. It’s a stunning depiction of an educated black poet from Boston who visits a Louisiana plantation to give a poetry reading. She trusts her companion, a Northern white man, who assures her safety.

There are 10 stories in all, and what binds them into a cohesive whole is the similar enticing narrative style. The author writes as effectively in the present as in the near and ancient past. Weapons, notably guns, come into play in most of the stories, heightening the dramatic danger. I’m tempted to slap the author’s hand for using such easy tools to incite page-turning urgency; and yet, these stories fall together so intelligently it’s hard to find fault.

So many story collections, especially debuts, reverberate with themes of modern relationships, lost and displaced souls, and broken hearts. While two of the stories in The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead could fall into this category, for the most part, what’s at stake in the others lifts the collection away from thoughtful snapshots into secrecy and lawlessness. Some of the story titles, like that of the book, are colorful adventures in and of themselves. The title of the unforgettable story involving the monk is, delightfully, “That We May All Be One Sheepfolde, or, O Saeculum Corruptissimum”.

*Best-selling author Richard Russo and Man Booker winner Penelope Lively are both publishing story collections in May: Trajectory by Russo and The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories by Lively.

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