“What’s For Dinner?” by James Schuyler

“What’s For Dinner?” by James Schuyler  (1978)  –  197 pages 

Helene is restless:
leaving soon. And what then
will I do with myself? Some-
one is watching morning
TV. I’m not reduced to that
yet. I wish one could press
snowflakes in a book like flowers.”

             James Schuyler, “The Morning of the Poem”

The novel “What’s For Dinner?” is a unique off-kilter quirky comedy of manners about us poor souls who live in suburbia.  The novel was written by a poet, James Schuyler, and it has a captivating rhythm all its own.

 For readers like me who are always on the lookout for something different and interesting, this novel is near perfect.  Although “What’s for Dinner” can be considered a comedy, it is a comedy with a dark biting underside. 

 New Yorker James Schuyler was a manic depressive for most of his adult life and spent years in psychoanalysis and group therapy.  In “What’s For Dinner?” he puts his group therapy experience to good use since much of the novel takes place during group therapy sessions.  A lot of the novel is the dialogue between these group members.  Group therapy talk has the potential for being very boring, but here the characters are so colorful and interesting that we care about what each character says.  The talk in the group sessions covers such weighty matters as alcoholism, adultery, drugs, insanity,  and death in an offhand conversational manner.  Dialogue is surely one of Schuyler’s strong suits.

 “Mrs. Judson,” Lottie said, “I wish you would tell me one thing that I’ve done to offend you.  Or anyone else here, for that matter.”

“How could you offend me?” Mrs. Judson said.  “I’m above that.”

“Yet you behave toward me as though I had.  I’m not trying to provoke you – I think you will feel better if you get some of what’s bothering you off your chest.”

“I’ll thank you to leave my chest out of it.”

“Very well,” Lottie said.  “I’ve tried.”

 These are just ordinary people who might have stepped out of a TV sitcom.  Being ordinary does not mean these same people can’t also be stubborn and capricious.    Some make tremendous progress in the group, and some don’t.   Also the family members of those in the group have their own things going on and their own sets of problems just like in real life.    The entire story is told with a certain elan, a kind spirit, that keeps the reader smiling the entire way.   

 This novel has caused me to be interested in James Schuyler.  I want to read more of his poetry and also his other novel which has been republished by NYRB, “Alfred and Guinevere”. 

 Once again New York Book Review (NYRB) has republished a book that puts the adjective ‘novel’ into the noun ‘novel’.  I looked up the adjective ‘novel’ and found the following meaning: ‘different from anything seen or known before”.   “What’s For Dinner?” certainly fits that definition.      

 “Your poems,”
a clunkhead said, “have grown
more open.” I don’t want to be open,
merely to say, to see and say, things
as they are.

         James Schuyler, “Dec 28, 1974”    

2 responses to this post.

  1. Sounds like a very interesting book 🙂


    • Hi Amrito,
      These NYRB novels are quite special, a real treat for novel readers. Somehow they pick out really fun and interesting forgotten novels from the past.


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