Reviewing Etgar Keret’s new volume of mini-memoirs poses something of a pleasant conundrum: What can you add to the reading world when you’ve just turned the final page of a book in which a writer has managed to say so much, so movingly, so concisely, and so entertainingly?
You could talk about the ways in which Keret makes his observations so precisely that you can practically see him throwing up his hands at the absurdities of life while embracing it fiercely at the same time; you could point out how he draws lovingly-tangled turns of phrase from his mischievous mind, phrases that recall a fellow agile wordsmith, American author Tom Robbins; and you could discuss how Keret tears down the author-reader wall with flamboyant, “ta-da!” flourishes. Witness, for instance, how a leisurely meditation on the personas of his two-week-old son — he’s enlightened; he’s a junkie; he’s Chucky from “Child’s Play” — expands into daydream while Keret is meant to be changing the kid’s diaper.
The delightful reality is that Keret brings the same surreal edge and black-as-pitch humor to these nonfictional musings as he does to his short stories. Even their shape — small, perfectly-formed — mirrors the feel of his fiction. And while many of these pieces found their initial homes in such publications as The New Yorker, Granta, and The New York Times, together they form an elegant arc, feeling as fresh and thoughtful as they did individually the first time around.
Keret’s writing exudes an intimate friendliness, as though he’s bantering with you, one-on-one. Readers will appreciate his view on pilates as a safe haven of exercise (“you work on mainly internal muscles, which means that anyone watching you has no way of knowing whether you’re really exercising your deep pelvic muscle, contracting your striated muscles, or just dozing on the mattress.”). We feel him commiserating with us on the misery of dealing with telemarketers (“The thing is, just a minute ago I fell into a hole and injured my forehead and foot, so this really isn’t the ideal time.”). Similarly we recognize the sense of ephiphany he describes in an anecdote about how his brother inspired him to be a writer (“I don’t know how a wizard feels the first time he manages to cast a spell, but it’s probably something similar to what I felt at that moment.”).
It’s an easy intimacy that he maintains whether he is addressing Israel’s political, ethical, and moral challenges, or simply holding forth to Swedish colleagues about Yom Kippur, the day of atonement: “The thought of a day when no motorized vehicles drive through the cities, when people walk around without their wallets and all the stores are closed, when there are no TV broadcasts or even updates on websites, to them sounded more like an innovative Naomi Klein concept than an ancient Jewish holiday. The fact that it was also a day when you’re supposed to ask others for forgiveness and do moral stocktaking upgraded the anti-consumerist angle with a welcome touch of ‘60s hippiedom.”
His wife, filmmaker Shira Geffen, pops up as a leveling force. We meet Keret’s buddy Uzi, “a well-known dream and hot dog buff” (who does not always give the best advice, I might add). There’s the gem of Keret’s “how my parents met” story and luminous tales about his two siblings that reveal the multiple layers of life in Israel in all its chaos, complexity, and conflicted glory. A wise, witty, and wonderful take on home, family, and heritage, Keret’s memoir shimmers with a life philosophy to match: “[T]he world we live in can sometimes be very tough,” Keret tells his young son. “And it’s only fair that everyone who’s born into it should have at least one person who’ll be there to protect him.”
THE SEVEN GOOD YEARS:
By Etgar Keret
Riverhead, 171 pp., $26.95
Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. Follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.