Etgar Keret’s Unlikely Landscape
The Nimrod Flip-out
By Etgar Keret
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 176 pages, $12.
* * *|
Etgar Keret’s fame in Israel is as unlikely as one of his own stories: A young writer of ultrashort, ultramodern fictions produces four straight best-selling collections. The stories in his collections go on to be translated into 16 languages and turned into more than 40 films. He becomes so culturally dominant, particularly among youth in Israel, that a small backlash develops against him from some of the older, more established writers. For anyone even mildly interested in good fiction, Jewish writing or Israeli youth, Keret’s latest book of stories, “The Nimrod Flip-out,” is required reading, and not just to check out what the young people are reading these days. Keret may be the most important writer working in Israel right now; certainly he is the closest observer of its post-intifada, post-Oslo spiritual condition. And astonishingly, he is also the Israeli writer closest to the literary tradition of pre-Israel, pre-Holocaust European Jewry. The contradiction produces some staggering effects.
The stories in “The Nimrod Flip-out” are rarely longer than a few pages, containing simple, startling conceits executed with diamond-cutting precision. In one story, a man’s new girlfriend confesses a dark secret: In the middle of the night, she becomes a short, fat, vulgar man. The narrator describes the resulting situation — partying all night with the fat man and waking up beside a lover — the way one might discuss a car that has to be started in a special way. “And so it goes: every night you fall asleep with him struggling to stay awake for the Argentinean finals, and in the morning there she is, the beautiful, forgiving woman that you also love till it hurts.”
The miraculous often turns out to be quotidian in “The Nimrod Flip-out,” just as the quotidian can suddenly generate the miraculous. In the story “For Only 9.99 (Inc. Tax and Postage),” a young man named Nachum becomes the messiah by writing away to advertisements in newspapers. And after a couple of appearances on “Nightline,” he manages to bring about world peace. So far, so much ordinary magical realism. But when another newspaper ad offers the secret to immortality for $29.99, Nachum’s father mutters: “D’you see that?… One lucky break, and already they go and up the price.” Even the promise of immortality is just a huge pain in the behind.
The messianic sensibility and the plainspoken, sometimes slangy mode of expression, while commonplace in Jewish literature, are much less common in Israeli literature. Echoes, not just of Kafka but of other neurotic fabulists such as I.L. Peretz and Bruno Schulz, abound everywhere in Keret. Some of the stories in this collection, while always staying entirely contemporary, seem to reach further back into the past, to the folk tales of the Hasidim. Surprisingly, the old ways of storytelling are perfectly apt for describing the new political reality in Israel: the hopelessness; the moral confusion; the way the rug of your assumptions is constantly being pulled out from under your feet; the ludicrously high stakes involved in such basic, everyday decisions as whether to go play pool at a bar or stay in. These stories are the creatures of the age of terrorism.
A profile of Keret in The New York Times last year was titled “The Apolitical Israeli,” a description that could not be more misleading. His stories may seem apolitical because they lack long speeches about the kibbutz movement or settlement or withdrawal, but “The Nimrod Flip-out” is constantly playing with the intersection of daily life and the horrors of history. Keret’s politics, like Israel’s, are just trying to get by now, with no more speechifying. This exhausted silence, unsure where to turn next, is the most common spiritual state of Keret’s characters. In “The Surprise Egg,” a suicide-bombing victim’s autopsy reveals that she has a metastasized cancer that would have killed her in weeks. Her husband does not know if he should grieve or not: “What is cancer, he thought to himself, if not a terrorist attack from above? What is it that God is doing, if not terrorizing us in protest against… something. Something so lofty and transcendental that it is beyond our grasp?”
Kafka said that literature should be an ax to break the frozen sea within us. Keret is a writer wailing at the ice with a Wiffle ball bat: The stories are absurd and, superficially at least, hopeless — certainly there is no cracked ice in the end — but the attempts themselves are funny and moving and offer their own particular hope. While Keret always focuses on precarious situations — difficult family conversations, awkward meetings on the street, hookups with strangers on trips to foreign countries, crumbling moral assumptions, characters who die or are near death, Israel itself —at the same time he points out that the precariousness of the situation is what gives it its beauty.
Stephen Marche, the author of “Raymond and Hannah” (Harcourt, 2005), is a Pforzheimer fellow at the City College of New York.