The short stories of Etgar Keret
Of all the joys that reading affords us, there are few like the thrill of discovering a new writer. You know the feeling. The startled surprise when you read the first page and feel the prose sizzling in your head; the sense of amazement that deepens into admiration, then into obsession; the desperate desire to get your hands on everything this new writer has ever written; the phone calls to friends telling them that they must, simply must, read this author; the kick you get when you read something new and you begin to see the patterns in the plot and the style begins to seem familiar and you can now proudly claim to be a fan.
My discovery of the month (for which many, many thanks to Black Mamba) is Israeli short story writer Etgar Keret. At once magical and visceral, playful and intense, Keret's short stories dazzle like fireworks, rockets of prose exploding onto the page. I haven't been this kicked about a new writer since I discovered Murakami all those years ago.
The comparison is not entirely inappropriate actually. Keret's short stories have the same imaginative flare, the same appetite, the same talent for combining the magical with the everyday to create a universe that's familiar yet entirely fantastic, as Murakami's do. The difference is that Keret is far more violent, far more rough-edged. Crisis, in Murakami, is largely internal – angst, listlessness and loneliness are the watchwords of his fiction. Keret, coming from a more troubled part of the world, is much more brutal. Bullets, bombs and beatings are a constant refrain in his stories, bloodshed is common. Suicide is as much a presence in these stories as it is in Murakami's writing, but where suicide in Murakami is a response to the ennui of a world where nothing ever happens, Keret's characters are driven to kill themselves by the pressures of living in a world where their very existence is constantly under threat.
Most of all, though, what Keret has in common with Murakami is attitude. They are both writers who define the uber-cool, both writers whose prose resonates with a vibe that you can't put a name to but can feel in your bones every time you read them. You know you've felt this with Murakami. Keret gives you the same tingling sensation.
But enough about Murakami. The first thing you notice about Keret's short stories is that they are really, really short. Often little more than 4-5 pages – many of them shorter than this post is going to turn out to be. This apparent shortness is deceptive though. These stories are not snapshot descriptions of some incident or the other, they are full-fledged narratives, complete with plot twists, character development, comic asides, socio-political commentary – the works. Keret is just very good at packing this all into a really, really small space, like a container of high explosive the size of a coke can. The result is that his stories advance at a breathtaking pace, with each new event or character sketched with rapid yet flawless precision.
Most of all though, there's Keret's restless inventiveness, his ability to come up with the most outrageously creative plots. A young suicide searches for love in the afterlife, a boy buys a mail order book (for just 9.99) which tells him the secrets of the Universe, a man just can't stop doing good, a daemon is going around repossessing talent from writers….each new story is more astounding than the last. And yet strangely enough, for all their wacky story lines, these stories never seem bizarre – instead, they usually seem to make sense, seem, in fact, extremely realistic. As though you wouldn't be surprised if the same thing happened to you tomorrow.
One reason for this, I suspect, is that beneath the surface zaniness of these stories, is a great depth of understanding, of sympathy. These are not fantasies, they are stories about real people (often sad and lonely people) living in a very terrible world and in extremely troubled times. The creativity we so delight in is also a coping mechanism, a way of staying afloat, of not allowing the spirit to sink under the sadness of so much violence and hurt. There's a scene in a story called Halibut where the narrator orders something called talking fish in a restaurant, and the fish advises him to leave immediately:
"Take off", the fish whispered to me, without opening its eyes, 'grab a cab to the airport and hop on the first plane out'. 'But I can't just take off like that', I explained in a clear, slow voice, 'I have commitments here, business'. The fish shut up again and so did I. Almost a minute later, it added, 'Never mind, forget it. I'm depressed.'"
This is Keret's key insight – that the fantastic can offer us the chance to escape the constraining realities of our lives in a way that we dare not ourselves. But that it can do so only when it is placed firmly in the context of the world we inhabit, and even then, the escape it offers may prove impossible or illusory. And that even so, this offer of escape is worth clinging to, worth celebrating. The narrator in the story never eats the fish, but as he leaves and the staff at the restaurant apologise, thinking he didn't like it, he says "No, no, the fish was good. Really, you have a very nice place here." We cannot live our life in dreams. But we can use our dreams to see our lives with greater clarity.
Enough seriousness. The bottomline is that Keret is a prodigiously talented, endlessly entertaining and manicly innovative writer, whose bite-sized short stories deserve to be read over and over again. Go out and get hold of his books, read them, worship them, and while you're about it, pray that the talent repossessing daemon never makes it to his door.
 Books include: The Nimrod Flip-out, The Bus-driver who wanted to be God and Gaza Blues (along with Samir El-Youssef)