Book Review: Suddenly, A Knock on the Door by Etgar Keret

There is a weird zeitgeist about my reading these days.  I will pick up a book that I am unfamiliar with, because of a friend’s recommendation or a short review in the Sunday papers, and then all of a sudden I am seeing it everywhere.  I began reading Etgar Keret’s collection of short stories, Suddenly a Knock on the Door, after seeing it reviewed in the Sunday NYTimes two weeks ago (15 April). While I was half way through it, I was tidying up the house when a magazine from back in February fell open to a review of the book announcing its upcoming publication. I had read the review back then, but had forgotten completely about it. And then again on Wednesday in the Metro–the free paper given to commuters each day and hardly a go-to read for  literary suggestions–the book was advertised on the front page and reviewed inside. On Friday, a co-worker told me the library had called to tell him the book he had on hold had arrived: Suddenly a Knock on the Door.

What is with all the buzz?  Keret’s publicists must be very good.

And to a large degree it is worth it.  Keret’s thirty-seven stories (translated by three people) are short, zippy, and fun.  They straddle the world between stark realism (suicide bombers and bratty children) and magic (talking fish, pissed-off angels). The subject matter often seems to be fiction itself–the fictions of the literary mind and the fictions of liars.

The collection is bookended by two stories in which they author is forced to write a story in front of us.  In the final story, he is being filmed by German Television and they want to film him writing, want to record the actual creative process. In the first, he is being forced by three men–a terrorist, a poll taker, and pizza delivery man–who have invaded his home and demand a story. Violence is threatened if he doesn’t come through with a story they approve of.  When the narrator begins telling a story about what is actually happening at the time–the most current form of realism–the pizza delivery man demands something more magical: “Things are tough,” he says. “Unemployment, suicide bombings, Iranians. People are hungry for something else.”

And something else is what Keret gives us.

In one story, “Lieland,” a man is pulled into a world where all his past lies have come alive. The fabrications he has made up throughout his life in order to deceive his mother, his employers, his girlfriends all confront him in a world that is harrowing and freeing.  In “Unzipping,” a woman, tired of her current lover, finds a zipper in the man’s mouth, and unzips it to reveal a new person inside, who is indeed a different sort of lover. In still another, a woman has only slept with men named Ari–twenty-eight of them previously and now her current boyfriend and the landlord.

Yet all is not silliness.

The number of suicides and suicide bombings in the stories are many. One beautiful story, “Not Completely Alone” begins “Three of the guys she dated tried to commit suicide. …One of them even succeeded.”  The last paragraph begins “Four of the guys she dated tried to commit suicide. Two of them succeeded.”  It’s only after going back to read the first sentence that we realize the narrator is the fourth guy–and the second success. In another, a man’s life is completely changed after emerging from a extended coma that was caused by a  jumper landing on his head after falling eleven stories to his death.  In another story “Joseph,” a smarmy producer in a cafe boasts about his talent for reading people but is not clever enough to spot the sweating man with the bomb strapped to him.  After a discussion of final words by those who die a violent death, we learn of one bombing victim whose last words are the bathetic “Without cheese” as he orders a kosher “cheeseburger” in the story “Cheesus Christ.”

In “Pick a Color,” a black man is beaten badly when he moves into a white neighborhood. In the hospital, he falls in love with the white nurse who tends to him, and, whom, confined to a wheelchair, he marries  in a ceremony presided by a Yellow priest whose family also had been beaten because of their color. When the white nurse is murdered by brown men, the man turns to the Yellow priest for explanation, explanation of “the God who loves you and wishes you all the best.” When that God shows up, in a wheel chair like the black man, the explanation that God gives is not what any of us probably expected.

In relating these stories here , they seem much darker than they are upon first reading. The stories do zip by, some of them only a page and a half long.  There is much “smoke-and-mirror” playing with reality, turns with truth and illusion.  There is banality, as there is always in life, and there is beauty. A young son gives animal names to the prostitutes who visit the old man on the floor above…a dying man gets his dying wish for peace on earth…a mourning widow comes to some closure through cooking in her diner.

Nathan Englander, in the title story of his collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, has a character say that the difference between Israel and Miami is “the space” –that there is none in Israel.  In Etgar Keret’s collection (in which Englander translated seven of the stories), space is also the focus. Ketger looks closely at the spaces between lies and truth, between life and illusion, between hope and reality.  The stories are clever, witty, and fun. There are enough “wow” moments, enough times when you breathe out in relief or exasperation, and plenty of times when you simply smile knowingly to yourself.

In the blurbs on the paperback edition, there are statements by Salmon Rushdie, Amos Oz, Yann Martel.  But my favorite is by Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story. Talking about Keret’s novel The Nimrod Flipout, Shteyngart calls it “the best work of literature to come out of Israel in the last five thousand years… .” That’s quite a claim.  Maybe I’ll see if it’s in our library.

Book Review: What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander

  I was prepared not to like this book.  The hype was too much.  I had read a “life-style” piece in the NYTimes Metropolitan section about Englander, an interview with him in The Guardian,  a front page review in the NYTimes Sunday Book Review, another in the London Review of Books, and a handful of smaller reviews. The title and the author seemed to be everywhere.  And yet, I was wrong.  The hype was deserved–the eight stories in the collection are gem-like in their perfection. Solid, thoughtful, inventive, poignant and droll.

The title of the collection famously alludes to Raymond Carver’s story and collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.  In Englander’s title story two couples sit around in a sunny kitchen drinking hard–just as they did in Carver’s story. The difference is that we are not in Carver’s Mid-West; we are in Florida, and Englander’s two couples are a secular Jewish couple who live there and a Hasidic couple from Israel, visiting after many years.  The conversation is tense, the husband uneasy with these Hasidic guests that he has just met, and the ending surprising and sad. (Go here to read Carver’s original story: “What we Talk About… and here to read it as it finally appeared with editor Gordon Lish’s revisions, “What We Talk About…”)

Several of the reviews I read mentioned how Englander’s stories seem to channel Kafka through Woody Allen, and the example they site is the story “Peep Show.” In fact, this Kafka/Woody Allen connection is what drew me to the collection.  In this particular story, a secular Jewish man walks into a peep show, advertising “live girls” and gets 5 tokens. Inserting the first token, he encounters several women, one of whom particularly arouses him. After the partition closes, he deposits another token, but this time, when the barrier opens, it reveals three rabbis from his past who begin to scold him; subsequent tokens reveal his scolding mother, his pregnant wife, and himself.

There are other stories that touch have a similar absurdity and wryness–particularly one about a gang of Long Island Jewish boys dismally failing to wreak revenge on an anti-Semitic bully and another about a summer camp for senior citizens–but overall this is not the tone of the collection. The final story “Free Fruit for Young Widows” and the second story “Sister Hills”  are memorable and distinct vignettes of life in Jerusalem.  Both have a historical sweep and a personal sadness. Both are extraordinary.

“The Reader” and “Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother’s Side” seem the most personal of the collection, and they too are brilliant. The language in these–as in all the stories–is clean and efficient, but beautiful and evocative.

As I said, I was a little put off by all the hype. But it was well deserved.  These are stories that will stay with me for a while and which I will return to often.