Etgar Keret writes in a deceptively casual style, conversational at times, even, and his very short stories can seem airy until suddenly they punch you in the face with a raw emotion, a harsh political statement, or just a sudden revelation. What I love about the style is that all the writerly work is invisible; the craft is so deeply embedded that everything feels so natural, until you realize that there really is a lot going on in terms of construction. He also weaves fantasy elements into his work in such a natural way that it doesn’t seem fantastic at all: the world he’s describing seems entirely real.
For example, one of my favorite pieces in Suddenly, a Knock on the Door is “Unzipping,” in which a girl discovers that her lover has a zipper under his tongue. She opens him up and finds another man inside him, a man very different from her lover: sexier, more dangerous. But “life with Jurgen wasn’t easy” and he eventually leaves her. Later, she finds the “wrapping” which once contained her previous lover and wonders whether it was a mistake to open him up and discard him. Then she also finds that she has a zipper under her tongue, too, and the story leaves us with her wondering whether or not to open it: “It made her very hopeful but also a little worried—mainly about freckled hands and a dry complexion. Maybe she’d have a tattoo, she thought, of a rose. She’d always wanted to have one, but never had the nerve. She’d thought it would hurt a lot.” So what we have is an allegory—the idea that we leave people behind because we’re always looking for something a little bit better, and we change ourselves, too, wondering what life would be like lived another way. She tries to “imagine what she’d be like inside.” The zipper metaphor works so perfectly and seamlessly, eliminating the necessity of certain scenes—a breakup scene with her previous lover, meeting Jurgen for the first time, etc—and compresses the reality of the story, letting the most important elements resonate most strongly. And in “What, Of This Goldfish, Would You Wish?” a guy is making a documentary in which he knocks on doors and asks people what they would wish for if they found a talking goldfish that granted three wishes, and he ends up encountering an old Russian man who actually has such a goldfish. But the whimsical element is quickly replaced with tragedy when the device becomes imbued with its real purpose: to reveal how lonely the old man is, having saved his third wish only because he didn’t want the goldfish to go away.
In the title story (which is also the first story in the collection), a character says, tellingly, to a writer named Etgar Keret: “Don’t you go and dump reality on us like a garbage truck. Use your imagination, man, create, invent, take it all the way.” This can be read as a sort of mantra, a lens through which to investigate the book: “reality” as “too safe,” a failure to “take it all the way.”
In “Joseph,” Keret’s narrator lies to himself, or hedges on the truth, in ways that point to a general inability to be sure of anything at all. From the opening:
“There are conversations that can change a person’s life. I’m sure of it. I mean, I’d like to believe it. I’m sitting in a café with a producer. He’s not exactly a producer, he never produced anything, but he wants to.”
Twice there we have a declarative sentence undermined by a hedge—“I mean, I’d like to believe it”; and “not exactly a producer”—which does some great work in terms of characterizing the narrator, getting us into his frame of mind. The unreliability of narrators is something pervasive in these stories, too. “Teamwork” begins with a father explaining that his son wants him to kill his grandmother (the narrator’s ex-wife’s mother): “My son wants me to kill her. He’s still young and doesn’t express this perfectly just yet, but I know exactly what he’s after. ‘I want that Daddy should hit her hard,’ he says.” The dialogue is what drives home that the son is actually very young, unaware of the import of his suggestions, and turns the first two sentences back against the narrator—we realize he’s fabricating this murder plot for his own reasons, but justifying them as his son’s wishes. Dialogue is a great way to reveal this unreliability, because then we don’t feel like the narrator’s internal monologue is forced; usually when we can easily see through a character as he lies to himself, it’s hard not to wonder why they can’t see what we see.
Many of the stories have a metafictional element to them, in the sense that they are stories about stories—and sometimes stories about the act of writing. The title story involves a writer being forced to write a story by intruders in his home. “Creative Writing” is a brilliant piece about a husband and wife, told almost entirely in the context of the stories they write in creative writing classes. The stories they write, and the metaphors contained within them, are the way we discover the problems in the story’s central relationship. And in “What Animal Are you?” a writer is asked by a reporter to “write something on the computer because it always makes for great visuals”—she’s filming him for German Public Television. At first he just pretends, but then a story emerges, which feels at first like a recounting of the very real, diegetic events, but becomes a story about the narrator’s troubled relationship with his wife and son—and the lies we tell ourselves and others. I love how Keret is able to write about writing and still be telling a story that has an emotional core, a relevance outside of a conversation about craft.