OCTOBER 24, 2019
THERE’S AN OLD Jewish joke that goes something like this:
A father in the local congregation is worried sick about his son. A friend tells him to see the rabbi about it, so he does.
“Rabbi,” he says, “I did everything I was supposed to. I brought him up in the faith, spent a lot of money sending him to a Jewish school. And now, he comes to me and tells me he’s decided to be a Christian. A Christian! What should I do?”
The rabbi leans back and strokes his beard. After a minute, he says, “Funny you should come to me. I have an identical problem. I also brought my boy up in the faith, gave him a proper education. And all of the sudden he comes to me says he’s going to be a Christian.”
“Vey iz mir,” the father says. “So, what did you do?”
“What a rabbi must do,” the rabbi says, “I turned to God for the answer.”
“And what did he say?” the father asks.
“He said: ‘Funny you should come to me…’”
If you didn’t know any better, you might think that Etgar Keret, Israel’s prize-winning short story teller, wrote that joke. That’s not only because it’s short. It also drives at the inaugural motif of Keret’s latest work: your problems are never only your problems — and that fact is the closest thing to consolation you’ll find in this world.
Fly Already, Keret’s relaxed yet scintillating new collection of (ultra) short stories, is deeply invested in the problems — often traumas — that impede, alter, and on rare occasions improve relationships. The book’s title story, “Fly Already,” about a father and son who spot a suicidal man standing on the top of an apartment building, is a pithy, seven-page encapsulation of that investment. The boy, who is first to spot the danger, asks his father if the man is a superhero. “Don’t do it!” the father yells to the jumper; “Come on, fly already!” his son shouts. As the father takes his boy in his arms and bolts toward the apartment’s roof in an attempt to save a life, he wants to tell the man about his own tragic loss of his wife, and to tell him that he’s not alone; the boy merely complains that he wants ice cream. They get up to the roof too late. And in the commotion, a red-headed woman living in the apartment has followed them up, and from the scene in front of her infers, wrongly, that the father is about to throw his boy off the ledge. “Put him down!” she says. She adds: “I know you’re suffering,” and assures him, from experience, that he doesn’t want to lose a child. The story ends not with him clearing up the confusion, but with the three of them eating ice cream together, enjoying one another’s company.
The humor and sweet irony that permeate “Fly Already” and most of the other stories in the collection allow Keret to bring his plots to a singularly human resolution. His characters, often suffering quietly from the throb of some deep and hidden (and sometimes bizarre) misery, find small comforts in the company of others, or in brief glimpses of beauty. Often these figures are wonderfully average, slightly clueless men whose troubles have left them directionless and, perhaps counterintuitively, emotionally open. It’s precisely that openness, that low-level hum of receptivity that predisposes them to a kind of quotidian sweetness and light that leaves you with a soft sigh, and maybe even a tear.
That’s not to say that the situations Keret builds around his characters are in any sense “every day.” He is a master conjurer of strange scenarios. But their occasional surreality and frequent absurdity only add to the impression that one is dealing with a deft craftsman, a writer who makes you laugh at the ridiculous, and then almost regret not having loved it more when the curtains come down a page later. If we smile at the listless circus cage-cleaner who, having recently broken up with his ex and learned that his son hates him, indifferently agrees to be shot out of a cannon at a large target, then we also find ourselves sharing his profound awe as the cannon blasts him out at the wrong angle, sending him soaring over the roofs and people of the city — waving happily at everyone who looks up — until he lands in the ocean, wanting to go again.
Reviewers often compare Keret to Kafka, a comparison that seems to be rooted in the terseness, in the above-mentioned absurdity, and in the parabolic quality of Keret’s work — and also, undoubtedly, in the fact that he’s Jewish. Though it’s hard not to agree with the evidence for this affinity, we nevertheless risk losing sight of Keret’s essential thematic and stylistic qualities if we laud him as Kafka 2.0. We should consider his deep if knowingly ironic commitment to humanity, as well as his muted hope for the individual. In his probing of trauma, fate, and despair — and in his particularly Jewish way of approaching those weighty concepts — he’s less Kafka of The Trial or The Castle, and more Coen Brothers of A Serious Man.
But whatever system of forebears we try to build around Keret, there are many aspects of his imagination that are unique. A story about a shifty and austere man named Goodman and his rapidly aging orphans, who yearn to leave the orphanage but have little understanding of what awaits them on the other side, feels at first like it might have a happy ending, and then like it might go the way of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. But with great efficiency Keret turns our expectations over once more: the orphans turn out to be clones; but these clones (unlike Ishiguro’s) are ordered on an individual basis by wealthy customers, and the protagonist of the story, “A.”, turns out to be a copy of none other than Adolf Hitler, created for a Holocaust survivor who wants to — well, you can guess what. From children who claim their new pet rabbit is really their recently disappeared father, to an angel who for the life of him can’t figure out how to be happy in heaven, Keret has no shortage of ways to catapult simple and important questions about existence and human happiness into highly original plots.
And he’s consistent, too. For a compact volume of 22 stories, there are remarkably few misses. But you know them when you see them. One story, “Todd,” is an attempt at a kind of meta-metafiction, in which the narrator tries a “postmodern trick” by writing a story that both is and is about a story that his friend wanted him to write, all while wryly acknowledging just how “postmodern” such an idea is. It would have been a worthwhile effort a few decades ago, but now it just feels cute. Another tale, called “GooDeed,” is a chuckling barb at philanthropic app-makers, who become distanced from the rush of excitement that attends a good deed by the very app they designed to make deed-doing more efficient. Witty, but glaringly one-dimensional next to the rest of the well-layered offerings in the book.
What weaves the best of these stories together is a palpable sense of the author’s abiding presence over his work, his focus on the handful of thematic elements that crop up like points of light, waiting to be constellated, as you scan the pages alongside him. Part of this achievement is editorial: the order of the stories feels carefully done, sustaining a deep resonance throughout the collection. At several points in the book, one feels as if the current story is some oblique reply to the tale that came before it, which in turn gains something, some clarity or significance, retroactively.
At times, this effect is brought about more explicitly. An email exchange between a young man, who wants to bring his Holocaust-survivor grandmother to an escape room on Holocaust Memorial Day, and the owner of that escape room, who tries to explain that his business is closed on that day, is interspersed throughout the latter half of the book. Each of the several exchanges brackets a story — like “Yad Vashem,” about a fraught visit to Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum — that seems charged with the heated correspondence. At one point, a story that ends with the phrase, “I’d like to thank her again,” gives way to an email addressed to the escape room owner, beginning, “Dear Sefi, I would like to thank you again…” The sense that one’s attention is being threaded between the text and some subterranean space of meaning allows Keret’s arrangement of wildly dissimilar plots to feel less like a pothole-addled road and more like a guileless puzzle with a promise.
This kind of comprehensive unity that runs from the thematic to the textual is rare enough for the form: much more so than novels, short story collections tend to suffer from a lack of cohesion. It’s why, though short story writers have been around for ages, we lack a sense of canonicity at the level of the collection. We’re accustomed to picking out the individual stories that we like best — “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” for instance — and forgetting that they came in a pack. And we do this because the form seems to allow or even encourage it. Granted, our impression that a collection might be unsystematic in this way can be prompted by the fact that, in many cases, some of the stories are first published in magazines and journals. But this on its own is no definitive impediment; writers like Munro and Borges know how to nudge the embers of their previously published stories together just enough to make them glow in a new collection. For any book of this kind, new stories or no, there is a certain threshold of coherence that marks a tier of achievement.
Maybe there’s nothing wrong with reading for the gems. But our readiness to do so makes it all the more enjoyable to find a collection that actually feels like a book. In its adroit organization, its casual lack of pretentiousness, and its commitment to exploring a handful of prism-like themes through their various aspects, Fly Already comes closer than most to that ideal. And you don’t have to dig hard to find the bright thread that guides you from cover to cover. At times, it’s the child’s promise of a fresh perspective; at others, it’s the mending of a “limp kind of happiness,” that feels like “the elastic on underpants that have been washed too many times.” Excepting a couple of duds, Keret’s stories feel, as their form suggests, truly collected.