April 2008

Elizabeth Bachner

fiction

The Girl on the Fridge by Etgar Keret

Etgar Keret’s stories are like paper cuts -- slim, dry and almost invisible until you look at them up close, but in fact they can be deeper and more painful than broken bones or the ugliest flesh wounds. Sometimes a paper cut, especially an infected one, dominates your whole body, so that it’s all you notice and all you can feel. He’s a writer who does what short fiction writers should do -- he makes his point fast. There’s magic in each of these stories, yes, and there’s dreaminess, and ambiguity, and poetry, but ultimately when you read an Etgar Keret story you are getting the razor blade, undisguised by the bar of soap.

In “Hat Trick,” a magician who loved animals when he was a kid realizes that the blasé suburban children of today, with their backs to him playing video games or watching a Schwarzenegger movie on cable, are looking for something much more gruesome than a rabbit to come out of his hat. In “Alternative,” a man feels guilty at the home of a prostitute who is supposedly a gifted painter or writer: “I roam around her soul, and it’s like a deserted apartment… The whole thing’s kitsch. In the end, she’ll die, even though they say she’s gifted. She’ll go down on me and she’ll die. She’ll die and she’ll go down on me. In the name of free choice.” In “One Hundred Percent,” one of the saddest stories ever written, a man’s belief in true love is irrevocably shattered when he learns what his girlfriend is hiding underneath her clothes. In “Monkey Say, Monkey Do,” a sexy scientist manipulates an intelligent, caged monkey. It’s hard to describe this work without spoiling it.

In early 21st century short fiction, originality is rare. The lumbering “short stories” published in The New Yorker or nominated for the Pushcart Prize or anthologized in various “Best Of” collections often seem familiar, like we’ve read them already. I find myself giving some leeway to these vaguely derivative little missives from mentees to their mentors. After all, we live in a world of billions of words, many of them tired out from overuse. If a story is true, and revelatory, and makes the reader feel something -- if it creates a world -- isn’t that original enough? But too often, those prize-winning stories don’t hold up to any test of quality at all. They don’t deserve to be written, and who knows why they’re so celebrated? Maybe it’s precisely because of their familiarity, because certain styles and themes have worn a groove into contemporary literature.

In this climate, Etgar Keret is an anomaly and a relief. His stories chronicle the current moment, and each is original, sudden and true. He writes about a quietly shocking world – sometimes the shocks are loud and spectacular, but our response as humans is to be struck silent – and he tells stories that are both grand and small. Each of his pieces reads as part of a sad, strange, butterfly effect – heartbreak begets heartbreak, each ugly surprise begets another ugly surprise. They are karmic parables for the apocalypse, when you understand that karma is not about punishment or reward, but the simple truth of natural consequences. His particular magical realism – as in “Without Her,” when a man’s landlord offers him a free extermination, and his apartment is covered with the corpses of bugs: some “the size of kittens” and one, “its belly covered with white spots… the size of a television,” and a seventy kilo bug, realizing it’s going to die, has hung itself from the light fixture with a rope -- always makes perfect sense. It’s never obscure or affected.

The forty-six stories in The Girl on the Fridge, collected from earlier volumes of Keret’s work, are almost all set in contemporary Israel, on dusty, violent streets, in hospitals or lonely apartments or suburban homes. It’s a place of soldiers, politics, corpses and absences, and in the stories pop culture and history intermingle. In “Quanta,” for example, the quanta are reviled by the public and the media. They go to beg Einstein for forgiveness on Yom Kippur Eve, and he yells that he’s not home from behind his locked door. They are criticized for failing to serve in the army, when the army actually wouldn’t take them because they were so tiny. 

Nobody listens to the quanta when they try to defend themselves, but when they say something that can be interpreted negatively, well, then everyone’s all ears… On Friday, after the program about the bombing of Hiroshima, they were interviewed in the studio in Jerusalem. They could barely talk. They just sat there facing the open mike and sniffling, and all the viewers at home, who didn’t know the quanta very well, thought they were avoiding the question and didn’t realize the quanta were crying. 

Readers of Keret’s collection will feel like the protagonist in “The Night the Buses Died,” when he sees the mangled corpses of all the world’s buses, one at a time. “I didn’t quite know how to account for the sadness I felt.” A man in a bus inspector’s hat walks through the crowd, trying to give hope, saying it’s all going to be fine, that there’s a whole fleet of buses in Haifa. “But everybody -- including him -- knew that none had been spared.”

The Girl on the Fridge by Etgar Keret
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 0374531056
192 Pages