Suddenly, a Knock on the Door
By Etgar Keret
Translated by Nathan Englander, Miriam Shlesinger and Sondra Silverston
FSG Originals, 208 pages, $14
Once upon a time, Etgar Keret was a humble guy scribbling out weird and fantastical stories about Israel’s version of Generation X. With his first few books, he gained a reputation in Israel as one of the country’s rising stars. Then, with the 2004 English-language publication of “The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God & Other Stories,” and its 2006 follow-up, “The Nimrod Flipout,” he zoomed with whiplash speed from quirky Israeli writer to international cult figure.
He’s featured in every literary festival the world has to offer. He’s been named a Chevalier of France’s Order of Arts and Letters. He’s elevated above his peers, again and again — by writers as various as Salman Rushdie, Amos Oz and Gary Shteyngart — to the status of Great Author: Voice of a Generation. But also, because of the kind of stories he writes, the kids think he’s cool. He’s got Kurt Vonnegut-Jonathan Safran Foer-type appeal. Comic adaptations are made of his work. Films, too. He — in collaboration with his wife — has even directed his own movie, “Jellyfish,” which won the Cannes Film Festival’s Camera d’Or prize.
His new book of short stories, “Suddenly, a Knock on the Door,” is being published in April in English translation, and the Forward has asked me to review it. This is a harder task than you might think. At this point in Keret’s career, criticism seems superfluous. He’s a brand on its way to becoming an industry, and the commercial noise around his work is apt to distort and drown out any serious attempt to explore its artistic merit.
This is not — or not wholly — Keret’s fault.
Like I said, Keret started out as a kid from Tel Aviv, spinning tales about what it was like to be young in the lonely, cynical, pop-inflected landscape of his particular time and place. He wrote about men, mostly — Israeli guys who spent most of their time chasing tail and money and hanging out on the beach, wondering, when they thought about much at all, what had happened to the meaning that life was supposed to have had — the sort of subjects moody boys have been writing about since there’s been such a thing as a moody boy.
But, oh, the imagination on this boy! Characters walk in and out of dreamscapes that are part and parcel to their realities. Dogs don’t die when their owners shoot them. People wander the afterlife in search of true love. People living on the moon have the power to turn their thoughts into concrete objects. In “Fatso,” maybe his most famous story, the narrator’s girlfriend turns into a massively hairy, sports-obsessed man every night. In the best of these pieces, Keret was able to transport the humdrum lives of his characters, through rings of metaphor, into rich metaphysical dimensions. His writing evoked a stranger, more porous world than our own, but it did so without abandoning the sad late-capitalist reality of the now.