Etgar Keret’s Bargain

May 22, 2008 | , , ,

The Girl on the Fridge
By Etgar Keret
Translated by Miriam Shlesinger and Sondra Silverston
173 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Think of it this way: if you pay the cover price for Etgar Keret’s newly translated collection of stories, The Girl on the Fridge, you’ll be shelling out approximately 25 cents for each of the 46 fictions included. Some of them aren’t much longer than a paragraph, true, and some you’ll forget by the time you turn a page, but what do you expect for a lousy quarter, especially in this rotten economy? If even a handful of the stories haunt you, shake you, throw you for a loop—and they will—you’ll feel like you’ve won the literary lottery.

Keret’s “Crazy Glue” and “Vacuum Seal” were such windfalls for me. In these tiny stories, the titular objects serve as concrete metaphors: in the former, a cheating boyfriend gets stuck on his girlfriend, literally, thanks to a particularly effective adhesive; in the latter, a soldier in basic training discovers that the same technique that protects his pack from water damage can insulate him from his emotions. Other stories work similar magic with analogy, even if they’re less magical: in “The Real Winner of the Preliminary Games,” for example, simply not committing suicide becomes a triumph on par with that of a British runner on TV who “come[s] first in his heat in the pre-prelims of some godforsaken race” and then celebrates as if “he’d won three Olympic medals.” Other tales distill complex histories into thumbnails, like “Terminal,” about two hospital roommates, one “a fat, overgrown sabra,” the other a yekke, or German Jew, and “Moral Something,” three sparkling paragraphs about the death penalty.

The Girl on the Fridge skims whatever cream is left, after a few previous volumes of translations, from Keret’s earliest collections. The first of these, Tsinorot [Pipelines] appeared when the author was just 25, back in 1992 (the same year that a classic anthology called Flash Fiction appeared in the U.S., consisting entirely of stories less than 750 words long: apparently, it was an annus mirabilis for short shorts). Keret’s second outing, Ga’aguei L’Kissinger [Missing Kissinger] (1994), was celebrated by the newspaper Yediot Achronot as one of the fifty most important Israeli books of all time. Like all of his collections since, these early books sold rampantly in Israel (particularly, Keret told an interviewer in 2005, to convicts, thanks to their “attention spans”). Authors of all stripes have played with extraordinarily short narrative forms—contributors to Flash Fiction included John Updike, Raymond Carver, and David Foster Wallace, while more recent initiatives by the magazines Wired and Smith have prodded dozens of celebrities, literary or not, to cook up fiction and memoirs as brief as Hemingway’s famously tiny story, which goes, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn”—but mostly these experiments have been diversions from longer projects. Keret is that rare author who has made a major name for himself without producing an extended work.

Not that he’s simply a gifted sufferer of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. He has, in fact, demonstrated an ability to execute full-length projects, particularly as a film director, as in Meduzot [Jellyfish], a movie written by his wife that won the Camera D’Or prize at Cannes last year, and recently premiered in the United States.

More importantly, perhaps, Keret’s radical minimalism has a cultural pedigree. The comparisons that critics and Keret himself have made between his flash fictions and the short fables of Kafka and Peretz, or to Hasidic storytelling traditions, ring a little false; engaging as they can be, rarely do Keret’s stories achieve anything resembling the mythic resonance that even Kafka’s loopiest fragments produce, nor do they reflect a social and theological project as complex as that of Nachman of Bratslav or, l’havdil, Peretz. Still, there’s no denying that Jewish and Hebrew literatures have always had room for bite-sized magic realism. How long, after all, is the classic narrative of sibling rivalry, the story of Cain and Abel? It clocks in at less than three hundred words. And the whole Aggadic tradition consists largely of brief tales replete with preternatural details.

Of course, Talmudic narratives don’t often feature kids calling each other “dipshit,” or allusions to David Lynch, or a scientist willing to masturbate the monkey that is her research subject. Keret’s lewd humor, and his sharp eye for the little details of Israeli life in the ’90s, comprise much of his stories’ appeal. His translators, Miriam Shlesinger and Sondra Silverston, deftly render children’s slang (“Shlomo Homo Kos El Omo,” becomes “Slimy Shlomo Is a Homo”), as well as a wide range of adult vulgarities and idioms, into reasonable English approximations. Occasionally they revise details, whether for the American reader’s convenience or for more obscure reasons—”My Best Friend,” for example, ends in English with the narrator humming the American Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” rather than the Israeli patriotic song, “Givat Ha’tachmoshet” [“Ammunition Hill”] mentioned in the Hebrew; and NBC is inexplicably substituted for HBO in “So Good”—but such lapses seem to be exceptions rather than the rule.

There’s lots to savor in The Girl on the Fridge, especially for fans of Keret’s The Nimrod Flipout (2006) and The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God (2001), as well as the new acolytes that will inevitably be drawn in by Jellyfish. It’s hard to imagine these stories becoming classics—nothing here approaches the epic scope of A. B. Yehoshua’s Mr. Mani or David Grossman’s See Under: Love—but again, what do you want for a quarter a pop? Shakespeare? Keret offers invention, humor, pathos, intelligence. Consider it a bargain.

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