The Best and Worst Dinner Parties in Literature: Mar-A-Lago Edition, Featuring Michael Knight
In Conversation with Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan on Fiction/Non/Fiction
Following Donald Trump’s dinner at Mar-A-Lago with Ye (formerly Kanye West) and white supremacist Nick Fuentes, novelist Michael Knight joins hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell to talk about the best and worst dinner parties in literature. They discuss the pressures of hosting, what makes someone a great guest, signature dishes, post-party regrets, and festive successes, as well as scenes in literature featuring all of these things. Knight also reads from a classic dinner party scene in his novella The Holiday Season.
From the episode:
V.V. Ganeshananthan: Thank you for reading that passage from your book. It’s a dinner party that I definitely want to read about but don’t want to go. That passage is a very good example of what can go wrong at a dinner party—people pretending to be something that they’re not for the purposes of the party. It’s kind of like a play with the audience right there at the table, and they’re allowed to immediately critique. At the same time, the audience’s criticism is a way that they’re playing a part.
Michael Knight: You’re talking about the audience’s criticism as a way that they’re playing a part in the scene?
Whitney Terrell: Yeah, I mean, the people at the table are the audience, but then they become the actors when they start to say, “you’re lying!” or “this isn’t true!” or “you supported me!”
VVG: A dinner party is an audience for each other, I guess.
MK: Oh, yeah, okay. I’m sorry, I see what you’re saying. You know, this is maybe not right on point, but I always think that dinner party scenes in fiction… they’re a little bit like sex scenes. You know what I mean? In the fact that they are, one, difficult to write, uncomfortable to write. And often what’s happening on the face of the scene is not always that interesting. What is interesting are all the tensions that are underneath the scene, that are driving the characters to do and say things that have different meanings in the context rather than the subtext of the scene. That’s what I love about a dinner party scene—all the tension that’s not being said aloud. You can feel it pressing up from underneath the scene.
WT: I think that’s why this scene with Trump’s Nazi dinner at Mar-a-Lago, which is our news peg for this show—which happened a while ago, by the way, but still—the reason everyone became so fascinated with it is that actually there was a lot of stuff working underneath that dinner. One of the funniest things that’s gotten lost in the whole Nick Fuentes part of it is that Kanye West went to Mar-a-Lago to ask Donald Trump to be his vice president. Can you imagine how pissed off Trump must have been when he said that? I would love to have been at the table right then.
VVG: Didn’t they report his outrage? Just the glorious presumption of it in all directions.
MK: All the stories that I’ve read about that dinner are about the presence of Nick Fuentes. But there’s also just the fact that a former U.S. president had dinner with Kanye, you know? Kanye gets plenty of anti-Semitic remarks out there in his own right without the help of Nick Fuentes. When you asked me about this podcast, I started wondering what they must have talked about. I mean, do you think that was it? Kanye asked Trump to be his vice president, and that was the end of the dinner party? Or did they go on to topics such as Israel and immigration policy, and—
WT: Well they did definitely talk about… it appears that Nick Fuentes gave Trump advice about his speeches and said that his renomination speech was bad and that he needed to go back to the old hard stuff. And Trump kind of liked that better than what Kanye was saying.
MK: Do you all believe that Trump didn’t know who Nick Fuentes was during the dinner?
VVG: I think he only knows—and barely knows—who he is himself. I don’t think he has any clear, recurring idea of other characters in his own life.
WT: I do think Trump is one of those people at a dinner party who people come up to all the time and say, “hi, I know you!” And he just looks at them like, “yeah, sure, I know you.” But he doesn’t think about really anyone other than the very big names. And Nick Fuentes, I don’t know, maybe not a big enough name for him to have remembered. What do you think, Michael?
MK: I don’t know. I thought his quote about… can I say a bad word on here, especially if I’m quoting someone?
WT: Yes, absolutely.
MK: “Kanye fucked me,” or “Ye fucked me,” or whatever he said after the fact. That rang true to me. I think he was genuinely pissed that Ye had maneuvered this in order to screw him over. So yeah, I don’t think he knew who Nick Fuentes was.
WT: And I do really love that they’ve both basically given press conferences on this dinner since they interacted. People don’t normally do that. [Laughing]
MK: That’s also personally galling to me. Like, you check your news feed the day after that happened and every news outlet has an article on this. Space in my brain is occupied by knowledge of this dinner party and wondering what they might have talked about and did Trump know or did he not know? And also how disgusting it is, the whole thing. I’m galled by the fact that my brain has to be occupied with that stuff.
WT: Well, I think that the reason that it became such a huge story explains why the awkward dinner party is such a beloved conceit in fiction. I mean, fiction is all about masks and how others perceive those masks. And Trump and Ye and Nick Fuentes are wearing different masks in that dinner and then parsing who was wearing what mask and why. It’s been a fascinating parlor game for all of America, unfortunately. We promised that we would talk about dinner parties and literature, we’ve been previewing this, so each person is going to nominate a dinner party scene from literature and explain why they love it. Michael, you’re the guest, so you get to go first. You can pick as many as you want. Bring it on.
MK: How are we defining dinner party? Could a wedding be a dinner party?
WT: Sure, okay.
MK: Oh boy, oh boy. I’m going to give two honorable mentions, and then I’m gonna make my choice.
WT: That sounds excellent.
MK: That’s hard, though. Okay, there’s a short story called “Bobcat” by a writer named Rebecca Lee, have you ever read that story? It’s an unbelievably fine collection, and that whole story is a dinner party. And what makes it great is what we’ve already talked about. People are having affairs with other people. And one character has written a novel in which another character doesn’t appear well, or in which his protagonist—who’s a stand-in for him—is sleeping with another woman who’s at the dinner party, so he may have romantic aspirations toward her…. There’s also this woman who keeps telling the story about being attacked by a bobcat in Nepal—it’s just a train wreck of a dinner party and a great story. And also staggeringly moving by the time you get to the end of it. The narrator and the hostess of the party is also pregnant. So I nominate “Bobcat” by Rebecca Lee.
Also, when I heard this theme, one of the things that came immediately into my head was all of James Salter’s great dinner parties, particularly in the novel Light Years. And those aren’t bad dinner parties—they’re in fact quite beautiful dinner parties. What makes them effective as literature is we’re watching these characters living a beautiful life that’s going to be ruined. You know that these lives are going to come apart by the end; they have this great potential and all that’s going to be lost.
But the one that I would pick… do you remember the scene in Beloved when Baby Suggs throws a dinner party for Sethe’s return? Sethe finally arrives in Cincinnati, and Baby Suggs throws what is one of the greatest dinner parties of all time. They kill some chickens, there’s catfish from the river. It all gets started because Stamp Paid found all these blackberries in a bush down by the river. There’s watermelon on ice. It’s the greatest dinner party of all time; everyone who goes has a wonderful time. There’s singing, there’s dancing. Where it gets interesting is afterward—Whitney, you were talking about regrets after dinner parties.
Afterward, everyone turns on Baby Suggs, because she was too generous, right? She did too much. What I love about a good piece of fiction is… I don’t know how to phrase this exactly. It either fulfills our expectations of the scene in a way that’s unexpected, or it defies our expectations of the scene in a way that’s convincing. And that one just nails it. It’s a great dinner party. It should leave a wonderful taste in everyone’s mouth. But everything goes to hell after the fact, for reasons that are completely unexpected. So I’ll go with Baby Suggs’ dinner party after Sethe makes her way to Cincinnati.
• “The inside story of Trump’s explosive dinner with Ye and Nick Fuentes,” by Marc Caputo • The Days of Afrekete by Asali Solomon • To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf • Leo Tolstoy • “The 8 best Festivus moments from ‘Seinfeld,’ ranked,” USA Today • “Curb Your Enthusiasm”: Bad Middling • Bobcat and Other Stories by Rebecca Lee • Light Years by James Salter • Last Night by James Salter • Beloved by Toni Morrison • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald • Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf • The Dark Tower VII by Stephen King • Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg • The Family Chao by Lan Samantha Chang • The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro • Jim Harrison • Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll • Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson • The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway • Redwall series by Brian Jacques