Phillip Lopate's essay was included in the accompanying booklet to WWB's March 5th event at the Idlewild bookstore in New York City. It is also part of our ongoing discussion of Etgar Keret's Girl on the Fridge, all this March, moderated by Adam Rovner.—Editors
Like any magician worth his salt, Etgar Keret starts with mundane objects and familiar scenarios, then transforms them into utterly unpredictable shapes. Sometimes the magic is white, sometimes black: if the former, we are transported to a place of Chagall-like flight, ecstasy and heavenly fulfillment; if the latter, all hell is unleashed. Yet even the reclamation of happiness takes on a sinister glow, because it is so much more radically expansive than the quotidian roots from which it sprang.
Keret's baseline is the normal discontent or yearning of the average, recognizable bloke: not for him the idiosyncratic, Tonio Kruger-sensitive, misanthropic genius or loner. His stories being so short in length, there are limits on the amount of psychological individuation or sociological background permitted each protagonist. Beyond that, Keret sympathizes with a generational perspective: he has found a way to tap into the collective psyches of twenty-, thirtysomething young people (even the ones past forty remain "forever young" in an arrested-development loop), their ids and egos colonized by advertising images, pop culture, consumerism; their consciences dulled by brutality, war and political impotence. In specific Israeli terms, these are not the heroic generation of the kibbutzniks nor the later, noble Peace Now refuseniks, but a third generation of basically conformist sons and daughters who serve in the military, and develop an apathetic shell in response to the horrors they are forced to witness, then return to civilian life and reach for a little bourgeois happiness and rock n roll, only to find their dreams derailed by balky girlfriends, nosy mothers, and murderous impulses that seem to spring from nowhere. Keret's scarred yet incurably naïve, immature protagonists are a nightmarish reproach to the older generation of Israeli idealists, a scandal whose provocation is entirely the author's intention. But their generational unease makes them instantly recognizable and appealing to young readers everywhere, which is one reason why Keret has achieved popularity on an international scale.
His cutting-edge fictions look effortlessly postmodern, in their self-reflexive, speculative, magic realist and conceptual aspects. They feel hip and new, justifying Salman Rushdie's claim that Keret is "the voice of the next generation." On the other hand, Keret seems to be extending an older literary tradition. His writing is certainly not bloodless or coy in the way of much current postmodernist fiction: it is grounded in the stresses of the everyday and delivers a wallop. One might almost link it to Kafka in its allusion to a spiritual firmament that transcends the everyday, and its exploitation of the comic distance between intentions and outcomes. There is also something of Isaac Babel's "Red Cavalry" stories in the Jewish soldier's wonderment when faced with ordinary, inexplicable cruelty. Finally, one thinks of feuilleton miniaturists such as Robert Walser, Joseph Roth and Peter Altenberg, whose dream-like prose poems and urban sketches flourished in the newspapers of the early twentieth century. Keret is, like them, a diamond-cutter, who also finds humor in the spasms of compression.
Other essays in this series:
Keret events this March in Boston and Chicago.
Adam Rovner puts Etgar Keret in context.
Miriam Shlesinger talks about translating Keret.
Adam Rovner on Reading Keret: Front Line of the Hyperreal.
Nicolle Elizabeth reports on our Keret event at the Idlewild bookstore.
Photos from the event.
Adam Rovner interviews Etgar Keret
The video from the Idlewild Event
Adam Rovner talks about "An Exclusive"
The Art of Big Things: Todd Hasak-Lowy on Reading Keret
My Favorite Keret Story, from Bud Parr
Translating the Funhouse: Adam Rovner on Reading Keret
Moshe Ron and Hannan Hever discuss finding Etgar Keret.
Resources for further reading (and viewing) on Etgar Keret.