Mastering the short story is no easy feat. An engaging one shines with the lyricism of poetry and the deliberate action of a play shuttling from scene to scene. Every line is critical.
Israeli author Etgar Keret doesn’t just produce memorable short stories but short short stories. Some are no longer than 500 words, and five or six pages is typical. As he’s done in past collections, “Fly Already” applies magical realism to the angst that claws at the insides of his characters. But this collection features some of the darkest imagery Keret has brought to print to date.
In one story, an old man positions a compressed block of metal — once the car his father drove when he fatally crashed — in his living room. A rich lonely man “buys” the birthdays of strangers to feel loved and appreciated. The last story, “The Evolution of a Breakup,” is a beautiful dissection of a culture lost in the whirlwind of heady expectations: “We promised ourselves we’d find a job we’d love, and when that didn’t work out we settled for a job we didn’t hate, and we felt lucky, and then unlucky, and then lucky again.”
Keret, who won Israel’s prestigious Sapir Prize for this book, plays with reality in ways that are reminiscent of Salman Rushdie but also have a splash of Kurt Vonnegut. “Tabula Rasa” stands out as a speculative story about victims confronting clones of historical figures, including Holocaust survivors who are finally able to get their hands on “Hitler.”
Themes circling the Holocaust appear in several other stories, too, including one with unusual formatting. Peppered throughout the collection are emails between the son of a Holocaust survivor and an escape-room operator, leading up to a fantastical conclusion that may be far-fetched but still demonstrates Keret’s ability to veer in surprising directions.
To enjoy Keret’s stories, you have to accept his approach: He cares less about Saki-like revelations, and more about crafting characters who feel like those you know, even if they’re dropped into absurd situations. In one poignant story, a father whose wife left him finds a new thrill in being shot out of a cannon. Another tale stars angels bored out of their halo’d skulls, raking clouds and hoping to feel the thrill of interacting with humans again.
A thread running through most of the stories is loss. Divorced fathers struggle to appease their children, love fades from relationships and, in the collection’s longest story, the highlight of a cannabis-loving youth worker’s day is sharing a joint with a married woman who has no interest in even being his friend. Some stories end with a sharp sting, and others with a more elliptical brushstroke resembling a fade into the sunset.
Keret teases out humor in the darkest corners of our world, and his stories can have you laughing on one before clamping your throat shut with melancholy by the next. It’s a gift he’s brought to every collection. He told reporters in 2017: “I feel that humor has always been the weapon of the weak. It is to protest against a reality which you cannot change but, at the same time, cannot accept.”
Keret has the admirable ability to find the poetry in gritty situations swirling with cannabis smoke and sour regrets. This marriage pulls in readers hungry to learn about the human condition and all its messiness.
David Silverberg is a Toronto-based freelance journalist and book critic who writes for BBC News, Vice, Ars Technica and NOW Magazine. Find him @SilverbergDave on Twitter.
By Etgar Keret
Riverhead Books. 209 pp. $27