Israel, in Polyethylene and Concrete
The Girl on the FridgeBy Etgar Keret
Translated from the Hebrew by MiriamShlesinger and Sondra Silverston
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 192 pages, $12.
Since its rebirth as a modern language, Hebrew has undergone a metamorphosis, from the closed but immensely rich language of sacred literature — with all the references and reverences and books within books it once contained — to a contemporary dialect formally neither constrained nor guided by tradition.
The short stories of Etgar Keret, whose latest collection, “The Girl on the Fridge,” is a selection of his previous short fiction, represent one aspect of this ambivalent renewal for a generation of Jews born with the modern language on their tongues — a generation to whom the word televiziyot does not sound strange or ridiculous.
As in his last, much-touted collection, “The Nimrod Flipout,” Keret’s stories refer neither to the Torah nor to the later classics of Israeli-Hebrew literature (S.Y. Agnon, Yaakov Shabtai) but to the hypermodern “polyethylene and concrete” landscape of Israel itself. Their often baffled or cynical anecdotal terseness suggests that his literary models are as likely to be found in suburban American prose (Sam Lipsyte’s “Venus Drive” is a kinder example) or in television and movies, for which Keret has written. Indeed, if there is any vitality to be found in these early stories, it is the vitality of a voice drawn self-consciously from the very mouth of the present, with all its subconscious blindness and chaos and squandered rage.
Although they are meant to criticize Israeli society and undermine the grand narratives of its polemical literature, Keret’s short and often twice-told tales do not actually struggle with any tradition, literary or religious. Born beyond the dialectics that characterized the literature of the past century, they are, as some would say, apologetically, “just stories.” Their obvious conceits and natural contrivances constitute their ironic charm, just as their lack of length encourages readability: As is the case with most contemporary fiction, readers are increasingly satisfied with these smaller and smaller glimpses of characters that have less and less knowledge of what it is they actually want.
Thus, many of Keret’s indeterminately young Sabras freely admit their ambivalence — not their incredulousness, hopelessness or something more conscious than merely confused. The details of their distraction — magic tricks, backgammon, border patrol — are meant in some way to highlight the vagueness of their existence, the arbitrariness of their misery and the latency of their doubt in a land of broken promises. But rather than addressing a basic human condition, these stories rarely stray from their place in Keret’s predetermined present: the post-Zionist Zeitgeist of insecurity and disappointment, urban loneliness, and the false consolations of marriage and sex.
This time around, the cast of characters includes a depressed magician who can no longer bear to reach into the void inside his hat, an ex-boyfriend who kills a murderer on a spree, for no other reason than to find out why his journalist girlfriend left him months ago — exclusive interview included — and a short-tempered Romanian who insists that there is only one rule in his café: no politics. The narrators are invariably men or hypothetical men — one is a monkey falling out of love with his scientist-girlfriend — usually from Tel Aviv or the suburbs, who are preoccupied with lamenting, harassing, imploring or disappointing their ex-girlfriends, who, in turn, monopolize all the meaning in their meaningless lives and supply the consonants of their male crises with the requisite existential vowels, though whether the wounded masculinity of these antiheroes is meant to symbolize the modern Israeli psyche itself is not clear. Like the painfully quiet young soldier in “Vacuum Seal,” for whom the metaphoric plastic wrapping literally becomes the way in which the Army has shrunk and changed him, these contrivances are, occasionally, tender and apt. But more often than not, the premise wraps up the story and seals it in itself, purposely protecting both reader and story from any risk of insight: In “Slimy Shlomo Is a Homo” a chain-smoking substitute teacher takes pity on a bullied boy who, in return, asks only why the other kids hate him. “Beats me,” the teacher says. “I’m just a sub.”
If so, then Keret is just a writer. Caveat lector: reader beware. For while, on the surface, many of his reactionary depictions are accurate and his sore winners and happy losers may seem real enough, Keret’s irreverent and unaffiliated stories are futile diversions from any worthwhile sense of the truth if they are meant to present anything more than sympathetic caricatures — creatures of an ambivalent imagination wandering a short, dark road that rarely leads to catharsis.
Daniel Elkind is a writer and translator who lives in Brooklyn.