Books

A Novelist Mines the Profound Humor of Human Life

Etgar Keret’s stories are absurd, tragic, surreal, and often dramatic, with surprising and shocking twists.

Fly Already by Etgar Keret (image courtesy of Penguin Random House)

Human life can be hilariously funny, despite, or perhaps especially because of, all the tragedies that befall us. Israeli writer Etgar Keret embodies this idea in his writings, most of which are short stories. His newest collection, Fly Already, represents his signature style; the stories are absurd, tragic, surreal, and often dramatic, with surprising and shocking twists. While the stories are funny, they all glimpse the profoundness of prosaic human lives.

In the title story, a father and son are taking a walk when the latter spots a man on the verge of jumping off a building. While the father tries to talk him out of it, the son wonders why the man doesn’t fly already. “The Next-to-Last Time I Was Shot Out of a Cannon” follows a cage cleaner who is assigned a rather dangerous job for a day. He is untrained for the job, but once he is shot out of the cannon, his journey in the sky makes him wonder whether this is how he might find happiness. And the bereaved son in “Car Concentrate” has compressed his dead father’s beloved ’68 Mustang convertible into a block that sits in the middle of his living room. In his house, it is a conversation starter, a curiosity that comes with endless stories the man invents to explain it away. It is also a memento with a secret of its own.

Etgar Keret (photo © Alessandro Moggi)

It is in “Tabula Rasa,” however, that Keret’s gift for adding layers to what initially seems straightforward comes through the sharpest. A. is an orphan in an institution of orphans supervised by Goodman. The orphans speak different languages and have little communication with each other. They all have a disease the author calls “elderness,” which makes them age, as well as learn and develop, 10 times faster than ordinary people. Most die before age 10 from illnesses related to old age. The orphans can enter the outside world once they pass a life-skills exam and then a personal interview with Goodman. After A. passes these he thinks he can leave, but he learns that he is at the institution for one sinister reason. This revelation will likely be a shock to the reader and an opportunity to question what it means to forgive histories, or not.

“Windows” is a chilling account of a man supposedly recovering after an accident in a windowless room. There is a phone beside his bed on which he can dial “0” and access a 24-hour support center, “like in a hotel.” As always, the story is about this, and much more, for when his request for a window with a view is granted, he begins to see a woman from his room. But what he sees is not the whole truth, as the woman’s side of the story reveals in a devastating climax that is all too relatable in the digitalized lives most of us lead.

Keret populates his stories with improbable characters and absurd situations: A lonely man who buys birthdays from people so he can get their birthday wishes and presents; a goldfish that comes out of the fishbowl at night, puts on checked slippers, and watches TV until the wee hours; the father of three girls who shape-shifts into a rabbit. Yet, each is just a way to approach deeper meanings and political opinions, to reiterate that even amid conflicts, everyday life goes on, people eat, smoke joints, make love, live perfectly boring lives, and die.

The collection has been translated from Hebrew by five translators: Sondra Silverston, Nathan Englander, Jessica Cohen, Miriam Shlesinger, and Yardenne Greenspan. A reader can gain much — not least, a good laugh — from even a casual reading of the stories in Fly Already. But it is by rereading them a second or a third time, ruminating on each one, that one will find in Keret’s nuanced storytelling its great importance to our times.

Fly Already by Etgar Keret (2019) is published by Riverhead Books and is available from Amazon or your local indie bookstore.

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