Reality takes a backseat when Etgar Keret starts writing. But under the guise of magic realism, the truth of the matter is very much there, hiding, waiting to jump out from between the lines. Trick is that you have to catch it before the story ends.
Discovering Keret wasn’t difficult once I’d chanced upon his short story, Creative Writing in The New Yorker. So mesmerised was I that I set out to find everything he had ever written. Having read some of his works I was pleasantly surprised to find that each story is more impressive than the last. Guava details the final moments of a man whose flight is about to crash. His last wish, we learn, isn’t that his wife and family live in comfortable abundance forever after, but for world peace. Creative Writing is about Maya and three really fantastical worlds she creates in a writing class, much to the disdain and curiousity of her husband who starts to take them a tad more seriously than he should. Stupour of Our Time is a narrator’s analysis of his father’s insistence on voting for political parties that do not get to parliament. It’s hilarious, batty and strangely identifiable as we all have that one member in own families whose political inclinations we do not quite understand. In The Nimrod Flipout, the narrator and his friends, Miron and Uzi go uncontrollably insane in turns, and blame it on their dead friend Nimrod.
Keret’s stories are short… 1500 – 3000 words, and utterly insane. Obviously I’m in love with him. He’s got a rare talent that allows him to establish characters in a limited amount of time despite the length. Of course, there’s only one to three characters in each story, so that limits the complexity to a large extent. Does that make him simple to ‘get’? Not really. But reading him transports you to this world where nothing and no one else really matters but the main character and the path leading down to the climax.
Journalism school aims to teach you a lot of things — check facts, establish integrity, don’t commit suicide unless you’re in a war zone chasing a story.. but most importantly, they teach you to hate ‘McJournalism’ (longer stories presented in short nuggets of information, basically, the McDonaldisation of journalism). Keret’s stories remind me of a paper I wrote on on the subject about how shorter news stories (in some cases as long as 250 words and as short as 140 characters) aren’t giving the audience the opportunity to understand an incident in a fair and balanced manner. Keret’s shorter than shorts brought this back when Creative Writing left me wanting more. Much, much more than another story with another protagonist facing another crisis. So I can see why he wasn’t too popular critics in the start.
One columnist went so far as to say he is “not so much of a stylist – you get the impression that he throws three or four of these stories off on the bus to work every morning”. But if you’re a grown-up who isn’t experimenting with illicit substances, you know how difficult it is to imagine something that, well, isn’t but still is. So to me this statement is misguided and a very haphazard judgement to pass because stories as fantastical as these don’t get “thrown” on a bus, toilet or even during an acid trip in a white room. They’re nuggets, yes I said it, of inspiration that come in spurts that must be penned down before they get diluted by distraction or logical thinking.
These stories aren’t Keret’s only source of fame. He’s apparently filmmaker of good repute in Israel (I haven’t seen the film yet) and has collaborated on several graphic novels (which I haven’t read yet). His website is quite interesting for, you know, an author’s website, woven around a theme morbid in a funny way. He also writes articles that find their way into The New Yorker, New York Times and The Guardian among others.
Keret, the storyteller, is definitely someone you should keep an eye on. He’s a revelation of sorts, my first revelation for that matter, in the new year.
(Everywhere Else) The Nimrod Flipout: Stories on Amazon.com
First published in The Caterpillar Cafe on Jan 9, 2012