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It’s no surprise, then, that writers and editors and literary standard-bearers the world over were ready to hail Keret as a prophet capable of forging an exciting new direction for a literature lost in the desert. He was appealingly cosmopolitan in his worldview — though his work was set in Israel, and his characters sometimes grappled with the specific conflicts of Israeli life (blown-up buses, stints in the army, the need for reliably excellent hummus), its attitude was secular and vaguely left-leaning, presenting a vision of a pop-induced global culture that transcended geographical and cultural boundaries. Tom Waits even starred as the eponymous Kneller in “Wristcutters: A Love Story,” the 2006 film version of “Kneller’s Happy Campers.”
It was flattering to think that, even in a place as riven as Israel, our side might be winning the culture war. Then, also, it was quirky, and quirky was good. People who don’t like to read, or who don’t like to read “literary fiction,” anyway, will pick up a book if they know it’s quirky. The hope is that Keret’s light, unthreatening surrealism might bring a larger readership to us all. And the stories are so short! You can read one in the time it takes to watch a YouTube video. They’re brief, accessible and not weighed down by the belabored realism that most writers of Keret’s generation mistook for seriousness of intent. How great would it be if Keret could get people interested in reading short stories again?
I sympathize with this line of thinking. It’s what went through my head, too, when I first encountered Keret’s work. It was exciting to read, fresh — like that unattractive guy at the bar who, through sheer chutzpah, turns out to be a master pickup artist.
So what if his writing is sloppy and haphazard — simple sentences, colloquial voices, a chatty reliance on clichéd phrases like “He didn’t miss a beat,” “This guy means business” and “It all started with a dream.” A semiliterate college freshman reading prose like this might understandably think, “Hey, I could do this, too.” That’s okay, says the literary professional with high hopes for Keret’s work: With time, the guy will grow as a writer; he’ll refine his prose and expand his themes and learn how to control his talents.
But what if he doesn’t? What if, instead of growing as a writer, the guy stagnates and rehashes the same tropes and tactics over and over and over again? What if he seems to be growing complacent, bored even, with his talent? On the evidence of “Suddenly, a Knock on the Door,” this is the situation in which Keret has found himself. His tactics have become familiar; they no longer surprise. The metaphor will be literalized. The lesson that the parable seems to be leading toward will be inverted. The reader familiar with Keret’s work can see what’s coming. Worse, the lazy turns of phrase, the clichés and inaccurate locutions and vague fudges of the language that on inspection mean nothing at all, continue to proliferate, even when, as in “The Story, Victorious,” the narrator is meant to be the author himself.
Few of the 36 stories in the book extend much beyond three or four pages in length, which wouldn’t be a problem if they were truly stories. What they are instead are premises, ideas for stories, that Keret plays with just long enough to discover the complications they contain before he abandons them without having addressed these complications. When he does bother to follow his stories out to their logical end — in “Unzipped,” with its heroes zippered into skins that hide their true personalities; and “Black and Blue,” with its mixture of psychological insight and blithe emotional cruelty, and “Not Completely Alone,” with its sympathetic portrait of a femme fatale and the men who die for her, along with three or four others — he shows that he can still charm and even jolt the reader into states of wonder.
Generally, though, Keret phones it in this time around. And whether or not he has the clout to get away with this, he must realize that doing so breaks a sacred trust.
Writers, like all artists, have the prerogative to pursue their talent in any way they can. The single thing that can reasonably be asked of them is that they strive to retain their integrity, that with every new piece they push themselves closer to the ephemeral, unreachable goal of perfection. Succeed or fail, the artist must try. Otherwise he’s just a content provider.
And what if, satisfied with the hype he’s previously received, he stops trying? For that he can be faulted.
Joshua Furst is a frequent contributor to the Forward. His latest book is “The Sabotage Café” (Knopf, 2007), a novel.