Folded into “Fly Already,” Etgar Keret’s latest short-story collection, is an epistolary tale interspersed between stories: “Glitch at the Edge of the Galaxy,” consists of an engaging e-mail exchange between an escape-room manager, Sefi Moreh, and a potential client, Michael Warshavski, who would very much like to bring his mother, a survivor of the Holocaust, to enjoy the treats and entertainments of the escape room on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
When Moreh gently points out to Warshavski that the escape room, like all other businesses, will be closed that day, a conversation — by turns hilarious, biting, and humane — ensues. A perfectly-toned example of a piece of Keret short fiction, the written conversation is savagely humorous, integrating satire, sarcasm, and shades of darker universal elements at a dizzying rate.
Even better, as a reader, you’re so immersed in Keretworld, that the twist in the tale is particularly more outrageous and unexpected than usual.
Fantastical, heart-breaking, laughter-inducing, fabulist, and sometimes just downright wacky, Keret’s writing is palpably imbued with a distinct element of intimacy, as though the author has just invited you into his local café or pub to chat about the state of the world — of our world — over your drink of choice.
Keret’s stories shimmer with an energizing, evocative amalgam of comedy, both dark and light, and a high-level tolerance for the absurd. And always — always — even when it feels as though he’s finessing his pages with a giant shrug about the ridiculous vagaries of the universe, inherent in Keret’s writing is a resolute insistence on adhering to life, as well as to the ineluctable joys of wordplay.
In the opening paragraph of “Dad With Mashed Potatoes,” for instance, the stage is set for a magical transformation that, in Keret’s capable hands, never leaves our plane of reality: “Stella, Ella, and I were almost ten years old the day Dad shape-shifted ... there he was, waiting for us in his armchair, glowing in the full whiteness of his glorious rabbithood.”
As the triplets try different ways to soothe their mother — “Ella and I gave Mom some jasmine tea and almond cookies, because jasmine calms you down and almonds cheer you up, and that afternoon, Mom definitely looked like she needed some cheering up and calming down” — they come across much-needed commiseration — as well as a way of saving Dad from the pet-store man – via an unexpected outlet.
In another story, you think you’re reading a tale of questionable family dynamics, disenchantment, and dysfunction, when, out of nowhere — well, out of a fishbowl — in the middle of the night, a fish dons slippers and watches TV. In “Tabula Rasa,” a clutch of orphans endure a disease that means that they age super-fast, become super-smart, and tend to die by age ten, hence their orphan-status: “What parent wanted to bond with a newborn that arrived, like a carton of milk, with such a close expiration date?”
In “Car Concentrate,” a man keeps a compacted ’68 Mustang in his living-room, partly as a way to seduce women, but also, perhaps, as a way to contain his darkest secret. And in “Ladder,” an angel, discontented with raking clouds, complains of “a limp kind of happiness. Like the elastic on underpants that have been washed too many times.’” He misses being on Earth, he says: “’Not the place itself… just the people.’”
And then there’s “Windows,” which cuts a little too close to the bone with its all-too-easy-to-imagine potential, in which a man with no memory is held in an immersive room with illusory windows where he appears to have a certain amount of control over the virtual realities surrounding him: “’By the way,’” he’s told at one point, “’if you’d like, there’s a way to block the sex with the help of an access code. You know, if you feel it’s inappropriate or that things are moving too fast…’”
Keret’s thought-provoking tales of the unexpected delightfully confound expectations: There’s an element of violence that lies beneath them, but also an element of hope, a gentle reminder of the value of human connection. The growing issue of homelessness gets a workout here, as does over-reaching wealth — fancy buying someone else’s birthday and celebrating it as your own? — while the scariest vision lies in “Arctic Lizard,” in which Keret expands those pre-theatrical movie recruitment ads for the U.S. military — the ones that play as exciting and challenging video games — to their obvious extension.
The shortest story in this collection — a solitary page and a half — packs as much power as the just-slightly longer ones. If you’re already familiar with Keret’s work, this is a welcome addition to his canon; if you haven’t read him yet, this collection is a terrific place to start.
by Etgar Keret
(translated by Sondra Silverston, with additional translations by Nathan Englander, Jessica Cohen, Miriam Shlesinger, Yardenne Greenspan)
Riverhead, 224 pp. $27
Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. Follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.