The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Dinner at the Center of the Earth, the best work yet from Pulitzer finalist and best-selling author of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges Nathan Englander.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. The epigraph, from Julian Barnes, reads, “There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest.” What does “accumulation” refer to in the context of this novel?
2. Who do you think is the main character of the novel?
3. Each character believes that he or she is doing the right thing, given the circumstances. In your opinion, whose justifications ring true? Is there “right” or “wrong” here?
4. Throughout the novel, Englander shifts time and perspective. How does this affect the reading experience?
5. On page 8, Englander writes, “In his own defense, as relates to the complication he hasn’t yet copped to, the guard has only been trying to protect Prisoner Z this whole time . . . He’s been guarding Prisoner Z in more ways than the prisoner could understand.” What does he mean?
6. The question of identity laces through the novel—for example, on page 63, Z thinks, “How could he have ended up here? How had a little, religious, Jewish-American boy from Long Island become an Israeli operative, living undercover in Paris, and now a traitor to his adopted state? How could he have ended up being so many kinds of people at once?” What point is Englander making?
7. Discuss the General. What role does he play in the novel?
8. What do we learn from the General’s “Limbo” passages?
9. The structure of the novel is circular, and the conflict itself is in many ways circular (in terms of action and reaction). How is this tied to the novel’s themes? What point do you think Englander is trying to make?
10. How, and in what ways, did Prisoner Z defend or betray his country? Can you make an argument for his patriotism? Is he a traitor or is he loyal? Is it possible to be both? What do you think the author believes?
11. Discuss the relationship between Prisoner Z and the guard. Are they friends? What justification could the guard have had for shielding Prisoner Z from news of the General?
12. On pages 163 and 164, Prisoner Z insists to the guard that he can do something more to help Z’s situation. Later on, the guard brings him a gift. How are these events connected? How do you feel about the Guard’s final gift to Prisoner Z?
13. The guard and Z have similar relationships with their mothers. How do the mothers in the novel serve the story?
14. What insights do we gain from Ruthi’s time in Lifta?
15. On page 224, Englander writes, “This very last time, holding Prisoner Z’s dizzy head in his lap, the guard has gone as far as either dared at addressing it. He had posed a question to Prisoner Z, to himself, to the cameras, as if confronting a power higher than them both. How, oh how, has it come to this?” How would you answer that question?
16. The mapmaker says, on page 234, “Just picture it, the two of us in no-man’s-land, on the blurry line beneath neither country. Me and you, eating together between worlds. A dinner at the center of the earth.” Why is this LAST phrase an apt title for the novel?
17. In what ways is the final scene a metaphor for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?