June 7, 2010

Hebrew Book Week - Part V: A Dissenting Opinion on Etgar Keret

Let me start by saying that I may not know what the hell I'm talking about. There's ample evidence of that, if one was to look for it. For example: I think Jonathan Safran Foer is a hack, and yet The New Yorker just chose him as one of the 20 best writers under 40. Another example: Yesterday I received yet another rejection letter from yet another publisher. A third and final example: I just finished reading Curriculum Vitae by Yoel Hoffmann, whom everyone has been swearing up and down is absolutely amazing, and I was utterly unimpressed. Hoffmann's seven or eight books, by the way, are all published by the same Israeli publisher that rejected me just yesterday.
So to reiterate - there's a very good chance I don't really know anything about literature, or at least good literature, and that no one is really interested in my meager appraisals or opinions, but that won't stop me from making them known. Isn't that what this whole blogosphere is about - voicing unpopular opinions?
And looking back on the long preparatory diatribe above, I now realize it might be a bit much for the none-too-harsh critique to follow, which could be summarized simply as: I don't think Etgar Keret is that great.
For the uninitiated, Etgar Keret is probably the most popular writer to come out of Israel in recent years. Thomas Beller, in a New York Times review of The Nimrod Flipout - Keret's second collection published in English - helpfully identifies him as a sort of latter-day Rod Serling (of Twilight Zone fame). Keret's stories often present a world that's off from our own by a few degrees, sometimes veering towards jokiness, sometimes towards modern fable, and almost always with a certain ironic wink, all within stories that are almost always very short, at times on the verge of flash fiction.
When Keret first started writing (and I'm a little flabbergasted to realize that his first book was published no less than 18 years ago) his colloquial language and breezy style were somewhat refreshing, and whatever occasional slip ups, or short pointless stories I came across were quickly forgiven (and forgotten), because he was young and cool and everyone was reading him. to criticize these things was to identify yourself as a stickler, and sticklers are no fun. But after reading his first three story collections, as well as some of his graphic novel collaborations (see Israeli Comix post below), I nevertheless grew tired of him - he never seems to develop, and aside from the originality and daring it took to write his first few stories, he never challenges himself anymore. That might be forgiven if he had spent this energy on perfecting and sharpening his style, but Keret has no style to speak of, or at least no literary style aside from a certain Israeli street dialect which almost all of his characters seem to share with the writer himself. review of The Girl on the Fridge, an English collection of Keret's earlier stories, states that, "from the beginning, the most unmistakable aspect of Keret’s style has been the length of his stories." So while other writers struggle endlessly to work out a surreal, naturalistic, Gothic, or baroque style, all that Keret has to do to maintain his style is to frequently consult the wordcount feature on his word processor.
But the brevity of his work shouldn't necessarily be a hindrance. Far greater writers like Donald Barthelme and Raymond Carver were never better than when they were at their briefest. Keret, however, seems to be writing the same stories now that he did in the late eighties, and while he's not running out of steam, he might be running out of ideas. As a review in The Guardian once stated, "you get the impression that he throws three or four of these stories off on the bus to work every morning," and after a while you might also find yourself quickly breezing through one of his stories just because you want to know what it's "about" - what specific gimmick does he employ here, or what's the punchline (that has never been the case with even the shortest works of Barthelme or Borges, where every word counts). In my case at least, these gimmicks are often the only things I remember from the story afterwards - there's the one with the piggy bank, and the one with the super glue, and the one with the dead buses, and the one with the girl who turns into a fat guy, and the one where everyone's dead (that last one is "Kneller's Happy Campers", which some call a novella - though I think it's too short and slight - and has been loosely adapted into the movie Wristcutters).
It's also strange to realize that all of his characters are basically stupid, if not emotionally stunted. Perhaps the best way of putting it is that nearly all of his characters are, either literally or figuratively, children. Though Keret himself is a university lecturer, his characters are usually uneducated, a little backwards, and at times mindlessly violent (correct me if I'm wrong, I haven't read all of his stories), which allows him to maintain a constant ironic distance, even in the stories told in the first person, since the child or teenager narrating obviously isn't the sophisticated writer who also composed the stories before and after it (at least some of which involve gratuitous sex scenes, which are often, ironically, the most childish aspect of his writing).
Even in the face of the most extraordinary events and circumstances (death and madness, decapitated rabbits and dead babies, demons and angels)  the language of both writer and characters fails to rise above straightforward and hackneyed phrases. Perhaps it is this simplicity that makes him so translatable and popular - there's no grappling with the text here, it's all surface - an unpredictable, amusing, and even unsettling surface. His stories, or at least the ones chosen for translation, have the kind of appeal that's made the works of Aesop, the brothers Grimm, and La Fontaine last across generations and languages, and perhaps that's why the actual stories as they are written don't matter as much as their basic outlines or ideas.

I don't want to give the impression that none of Keret's work is worth reading. Taken for what they are, these short stories can be quite fun, especially when he doesn't try to go for pathos, and their brevity often works in their favor - it's kind of like reading a book of jokes - you get the joke, or not, and move on to the next - often you don't have time to ask yourself whether or not you're having fun (incidentally, Nobody Said It Was Going to Be Fun is the name of a graphic novel by Keret and artist Rutu Modan). Perhaps at some point in the future specific stories could be culled from all of his collections to form a single praiseworthy volume, and perhaps he might surprise us yet and produce something new and daring (though either option might take a while - Keret's most recent Hebrew collection, Suddenly a Knock at the Door, came out just last month, and of the four stories I've read, it's not much better or different from the previous ones).

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