Not quite Kwintessential Keret

Suddenly,a Knock on the Door illuminates effervescent imagination of Etgar Keret.

Keret cartoon 521 (photo credit: AVI KATZ)
Keret cartoon 521
(photo credit: AVI KATZ)
If for nothing else the Israeli writer Etgar Keret, 44, deserves admiration for laboring away in the vineyards of a little-honored genre, the Very Short Story. Like light verse, the VSS is customarily viewed as a form of quasi-literature, prose-poetry with, if you will, a punchline, a kind of tossed-off japery that doesn’t deserve to be remembered any longer than it takes to read.
It just looks too slight, too easy, too much the anorexic exercise, doesn’t it? But all I’ll say is, OK, you try it. There’s an argument, and it’s a good one, that writing a successful short story is harder than writing a really good novel. And if short stories are especially challenging for a writer, then Very Short Stories – but as I’ve said, you give it a go and see how you fare.
I can’t think of many writers who were masters of the miniature. Certainly one was William Saroyan, with whom Keret has much in common, not least his sentimentality; another was Donald Barthelme, who, although he did not restrict himself to the very short, nonetheless shares with Keret a delight in the absurd and the surreal. There must be others, but as I’ve said, I can’t think of any who consistently pulled off a decent payoff in a mere one-to-three pages Suddenly, a Knock on the Door is Keret’s sixth collection of very short fictions and the fourth to appear in English. He’s turned his hand to other writing – film scripts, children’s books – but it’s his short shorts that have established him worldwide in top literary magazines and on best-seller lists. But, of course, it’s not just the bite-sized portions of his fiction that has yielded his popularity.
We’re not talking cupcakes here, not when so many of Keret’s narrators and protagonists are the divorced, the separated, the widowed, the rejected, the abandoned, the lost, the lonely or the otherwise isolated and alone. Keret is often laugh-aloud funny. But just as often a fug of melancholy, if not a vinegary sadness, hangs over his stories. Did I mention that Etgar Keret is Jewish?
No story qualifies
Given his much-admired inventiveness and imagination, no single story quite qualifies as a Kwintessential Keret, but few in Suddenly come any closer than the single, two-page paragraph that constitutes Parallel Universes.
If you don’t know Keret, the opening sentences of this story may serve as a fitting introduction: “There’s a theory that says there are billions of other universes, parallel to the one we live in, and that each of them is slightly different.
There are the ones where you were never born, and the ones where you wouldn’t want to be born. There are some parallel universes where I’m having sex with a horse, and ones where I win the lottery. There are universes where I’m lying on the bedroom floor, slowly bleeding to death, and universes where I’ve been elected president, by a landslide. But I don’t care about any of those parallel universes now. The only ones that interest me are the ones where she isn’t happily married, with a cute little boy, the ones where she’s completely alone…” An awful lot of typical Keret may be found in these sentences: dreamy imaginings (“billions of universes”); a hint of menace (“where you wouldn’t want to be born”); colloquial discourse (the unmindful shift from “you” to “I,” the careless and repetitive “there” as weak grammatical subject); sudden, semi-comic calculated shock (“sex with a horse”); quotidian desire (“winning the lottery”); abrupt grotesquerie (“slowly bleeding to death” – and note – “on the bedroom floor”); self-aggrandizing fantasy (not just “elected president,” but “by a landslide”); grounding in the moment (“But I don’t care about any of those parallel universes now”); and not least, unrequited love (“where she isn’t happily married”).
These are certainly disparate and even contradictory elements, and such disparity and contradiction may be found throughout the collection. Cheesus Christ, for example, is a single paragraph eliding seamlessly from image to image over four pages and makes up one of the most accurate evocations of the rhetoric of dreams that I can recall in literature.
Yet the very straightforward Black and Blue, which runs to about eight pages – a veritable War and Peace for this miniaturist – is as realistic a piece of fiction as found anywhere.
But parsing Etgar Keret’s stories is like trying to keep appointments by Salvador Dali’s melting clocks. Suffice to say that with nearly three dozen stories sardined into a volume of less than 200 pages, several are slight in the extreme, and several fall on their faces, victims of acute self-conscious preciousness.
A talking goldfish (What, of This Goldfish, Would You Wish?) or a man reincarnated as a piece of fruit (Guava) may not be everyone’s cup of tea (very much not mine). But rewards abound. Amid the occasional groaner, readers of Suddenly, a Knock on the Door will experience by turn pleasure, discomfort, laughter, pluckings of the heart-strings, intriguing glimpses of a hip and occasionally desperate Tel Aviv, and above all wonderment at the effervescent imagination of Etgar Keret.