I’m on the phone with author Nathan Englander. He sounds as if he is weaving through traffic, his voice loud but distant, a characteristic of speaker phone. He talks quickly, but if one could see him, they’d say his voice is presumably animate. He is in Brooklyn, and it is a Thursday. He talks of politics, of his writing process, of consciousness versus unconsciousness — all broad themes that are eloquently compressed in his new novel, “Dinner at the Center of the Earth.” And, above all, even given the seriousness of his novel and the seriousness of being a writer in the current political climate, Englander is hilarious.
Englander moved to Israel around 1996 during the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His first-hand experience with this conflict during his time in Israel was a strong influence during the writing of his novel. This influence, however, was less of a concrete nature and more of an emotional one — one of peace and hope.
“I just never let go of this notion of peace and how important it is and how we should fight for it,” Englander said in an interview with The Daily. “Unconsciously and emotionally, I’ve been obsessed with the shattered peace process.”
Englander credits this obsession to his writing of “Dinner at the Center of the Earth,” a project that he’d wanted to begin for years. In his own words, he did not want the writing of this novel to require him to “execute the executable,” and it did not. Englander wanted to write a novel not that he knew he could write, but one that he knew would challenge him.
Last Monday, Englander came to Ann Arbor to perform a reading of “Dinner at the Center of the Earth” at Zingerman’s Greyline. He appeared, under the ultra-modern chandelier over the podium, to be a modest man — a cool-dad type and, ultimately, less disheveled than he sounded on the phone. But, still, he’s funny.
He read a passage encapsulating the protagonist of his novel, Prisoner Z, and his boyhood, more specifically of his pretty second grade teacher and his Jewish schooling. The imagery of an 18-year-old second grade teacher, whose pursuit of pregnancy is almost ridiculous, in conjunction with Englander’s amused tone causes a roaring laughter from the audience.
But, the audience’s roar becomes deafening when Englander began to talk about his experiences living in Jerusalem after getting an MFA in Creative Writing from University of Iowa.
A friend of Englander was convinced that he, himself, had contracted a venereal disease because of the body shock he would experience while standing at the toilet to pee. When his friend sat down to pee, however, nothing out of the ordinary happened. The friend went to the doctor. Everything was fine. It was only later that they realized he was being electrocuted. When he sat down, he was against porcelain. When he stood up, he was completing the bathroom’s circuit and being electrocuted.
Englander decided to throw a potluck one night for his friends. Naturally, the next day, he was worried about how it went. So he called another friend. This friend was a war photographer. She was in the midst of a war scene when Englander called, and they talked about his party, where he was his flat and she was squatting behind a boulder among guns and bombs.
In these anecdotes, Englander encapsulated the idea that, though war and hate and disaster were prominent in Israel, he and his friends were determined to maintain normality, to have potlucks and to talk about them the next day on battlefields. They continued living life.
“Dinner at the Center of the Earth” communicates these ideas. The novel communicates normality and humor in the pursuit of peace, in the pursuit of a better world. For most writers, the communication of this theme would be a difficult pursuit, the unexecutable, and Englander does this almost effortlessly.
Nathan Englander’s presence, even sans novel, would’ve been enough for anyone to attend Monday’s event. With eloquence, Englander spoke of past and contemporary politics, the necessity of peace, and his own personal experiences with an unparalleled humor. The novel on the stand beside him seemed like a critically-acclaimed prop, a nostalgic souvenir for after Englander went back to Brooklyn, or Israel, or somewhere in Europe, for you to read when only you wanted to hear him speak one more time.