While Etgar Keret can claim the not-exactly-thrilling title of being the most popular Israeli author of fiction published in America (quick, name another one), that doesn’t mean he’s a small fish in a rinky-dink pond. The guy can write, and not just with humor, but with style. His stories are like swift, poisoned darts that you initially think you can dodge, but every now and again the cock-eyed despair that he layers beneath the jokes and absurd situations gets you right between the eyes. You’re not sure whether to laugh or to cry.
That was the situation in particular with Keret’s collection The Nimrod Flipout, published in the US in 2006. In that volume, Keret deployed his talents to bracing effect; in one memorable story the protagonist ends up having a bizarre but ultimately quite meaningful conversation with the (apparently not quite dead) fish on his plate. There are, quite frankly, just about no other authors out there who can stretch the limits of reality in their fiction as far as Keret does without losing his characters’ humanity; at least most of the time.
In Keret’s newest collection, The Girl on the Fridge, he delivers up another fistful of tightly-wound surrealist slapstick, but unfortunately this time it’s all to much reduced effect. It’s possible that familiarity breeds ennui, and Keret’s mordant shtick has now simply become tired out through repetition. The stories here are quite a bit shorter, for one, micro-thin tales that average about three pages and seem like the kind of thing that Keret could crank out in 20 minutes before hitting the sack. As such, a number of them certainly entertain, such as the story “Crazy Glue”, which ends with the narrator finding that his not-exactly-sane girlfriend has super-glued everything in the apartment, and as the coup de grace, glued her feet to the ceiling. He offers to go the neighbors and get help:
“Fine,” she said and laughed. “I’m not going anywhere.” By then I was laughing too. She was so pretty, and so incongruous, hanging upside down from the ceiling that way. With her long hair dangling downward, and her breasts molded like two perfect teardrops under her white T-shirt. So pretty. I climbed back up onto the pile of books and kissed her. I felt her tongue on mine. The books slipped out from under my feet, as I hung there in midair, not touching a thing, dangling from just her lips.
One could do worse for the last image in a story than a man hanging in the air, super-glued to his girlfriend’s lips. Keret gives the scenario a daffy romantic twist here that he has a particular knack for, and serves him well in other pieces. The surprisingly sweet “Happy Birthday to You” is nothing more than a man listing everything that should happen to a woman (it’s unclear if he actually knows her or is just entranced by a stranger on the bus and fantasizing about her life) on her birthday, and how perfect it will be. The planned evening ends on a graceful, bittersweet note: “And before I go, if you want, I’ll kiss you. And if not, I’ll just shake your hand.”
But the bulk of The Girl on the Fridge is taken up with less-memorable little twists of tale that vacillate between black humor and straight-faced absurdity. Taken one at a time the stories show off Keret’s gift for the quick jab, but as a whole they disappoint, leaving little of that slightly mind-altering frisson that some of his better work drops in their wake. In “Alternative”, for instance, Keret spins a riff on sex and suicide that looks to be going somewhere interesting only to have it be hacked off when the narrator punches through the fourth wall at the ending: “I can tie it all together neatly so the climax shows off my narrative skills. Or not.” At some point, this all changes from Barthleme-style postmodern joshing to just plain screwing around.
This is not to say that The Girl on the Fridge is worth nobody’s time. There are at least a half-dozen moments here that are worth a good snicker, which is better than many more determined humorists can manage in heftier books. And one can polish the whole thing off in an hour or two. But there’s no escaping the sinking suspicion all throughout that no matter how entertaining Keret’s goof can be for the short haul, he could (and probably should) do better.