If you have room in your heart, wallet or reading list for just one book of short stories this year, make it Etgar Keret’s Suddenly, a Knock on the Door. I don’t care that it’s only April (at the writing of this review): It’s a superlative collection, one that will easily stand up to all comers.
Keret writes short fiction — often, very short. It’s astonishing what he can do in just two pages: go from funny to bizarre to touching to satiric to meta to surprising and surreal. There are 35 stories in this slender paperback, and sometimes they are just strange or sad or sweet enough to make you set the book down and walk away, to give them time to sink in.
Take “Lieland”, in which Keret draws many of these elements together. Robbie, a lifelong liar, lies to cover up — for skipping class, going AWOL, being late for work — using some tragic element. A run-over dog, he realized, or a niece afraid of her brutal husband, elicited easy acceptance. His first lie involved getting beat up by a neighborhood kid who stole his money (he was supposed to buy his mom cigarettes but instead got himself ice cream). Years later, his mother appears in a dream and leads him to a portal into a blank white world — where the made-up neighborhood bully promptly appears and pounds him.
In that white world, Lieland, the subjects of lies are made manifest, even the damaged dog. “It was a nice dog, and seemed happy to meet Robbie, who wished his lie had a little less pain and suffering in it,” Keret writes. That would be enough to close a story — a lesson, the smallest lie can hurt the innocent — but Keret goes on. He adds a magic gum ball machine, which throws Robbie back into the world where he peppers his lies with kittens and holidays. “(I)t was much harder to make up all the positive lies,” Robbie thinks ruefully.
That too would be enough, but the story has yet another turn. Robbie discovers another liar, Natasha, and brings her to the white world; she too sees that her lies live, and she wants to tend them better (and he plans to be by her side).
This is many things: It’s about lies and unexpected consequences and about a man meeting his match. It’s about an imaginary world that’s swiftly, visually realized. And it’s about storytelling: the teller’s inclination toward the dark and difficult, the sense that those themes are more welcome than those that are pleasant, and how hard it is to tell a pleasant tale.
Keret, a well-known cultural figure in Israel, took ten years to put this collection together. In the interim, he’s gotten married, had a son, taken a teaching position at Tel Aviv University and co-written and co-directed the feature film Jellyfish, which won the first feature award at Cannes in 2007. In interviews about Suddenly, a Knock on the Door, he has said stability and success slowed his short-story writing — that makes sense, since he began writing in a dark moment, after a close friend committed suicide. In 2005, Keret told the Believer that his stories are “like letters sent from the id to the superego.” That combination of unmediated extremes — imagination and control — is in these stories, often buffeted by winds of serendipity and chaos.
In “Unzipping”, a woman discovers a tiny zipper under her lover’s tongue and tugs it to discover a former, different lover inside; she folds away the skin and carries on with the man she’s revealed. A lonely man eats breakfast in the same cafe day after day in “Healthy Start” when he is mistaken for someone else; enjoying the company, he plays along and finds himself standing in for a run of people, filling their needs — at least he is not alone. Being alone, dying, suicide — in Keret’s hands they have weight but never pull the stories under. “Cheesus Christ” begins with a fake survey about the last words people say before dying, moves to a man dying in a fast-food restaurant, then to the manager and her ideas, and then to the company’s depressed CEO, then to his doctor and his tragic past, then to the butterfly effect, then ties it all together in five pages.
The dying man in “Cheesus Christ” orders a cheeseburger kosher (without cheese) — issues of Jewishness and the politics of Israel have been important to Keret. Born in Israel in 1967 to parents who are Holocaust survivors, Keret has dealt with the heated political issues of his times by creating work that is wild and absurdist — and sometimes pointedly satirical — running counter to the more grounded Israeli literary tradition. He jokes about this in the first, titular story, in which armed thugs demand that the narrator, a writer like Keret himself, tell them a story. “How do I always get myself in these situations?” he asks. “I bet things like this never happen to Amos Oz or David Grossman.”
Some stories will speak clearly to people invested in contemporary Israel, with new wealth, Russian immigrants and a suicide bombing. Those references are glancing, however. Like fables and parables, most of these stories are not tied to a specific time or place. Keret’s satire may be local, but his ironies are global; this is a master storyteller, creating deep, tragic, funny, painful tales with scarcely more words than you’ve read in this review.