Thursday, 30 October 2014

Stories about stories about stories

Full title: Suddenly, A Knock on the Door
Author: Etgar Keret; tr: Miriam Shlesinger, Sondra Silverston, Nathan Englander
Genre: Fiction, shorts
Attributes: 190p, paperback
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2012)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Etgar Keret's fiction has a flavour of its own. It tastes of good storytelling, and leaves in the reader's mind important questions such as these: Where the hell does he get them? How long before one plot starts catching roots inside his mind? How on earth does he generate the sparks that get the engine rumbling, the wheels spinning, the narrative machines rolling forth? Is he for real? Is he on something?
The flavour of Etgar Keret's stories also develops from their structural homogeneity. There is almost always a beginning that poses a problem or calls attention to a strange fact or other (one, let's say, that didn't seem to have a place in fiction): "Have you ever wondered what word is most frequently uttered by people about to die a violent death?" ("Cheesus Christ"); "I know a guy who fantasizes all the time" ("Shut"); "This is the story of a man who suffered from a hemorrhoid" ("Hemorrhoid").
Then there are beginnings that simply can't go unnoticed. They make you read the rest with the curiosity and fascination of an addict: "My son wants me to kill her" ("Teamwork"); "The whole incident with Avishai Abudi should, in my opinion, set a red light flashing for us all" ("Pudding"); "Three of the guys she dated tried to commit suicide" ("Not Completely Alone").
There's a load of potential in these first sentences. They blow the air of life into each story and enable them to lead a life of healthy fantasy. But let's set the record straight: these first sentences are no tricks; they don't pretend to deliver without actually delivering. The promise they make is always fulfilled. If these beginnings are outstanding, the "bodies" of the stories that follow are equally gratifying. "It began with a kiss," says the first sentence of "Unzipping," and then in the story that follows we encounter people provided with zippers like stuffed toys, who change their appearance in order to plunge into new love affairs. "Healthy Start," which opens with a sorry protagonist who finds himself unbearably lonely after conjugal separation, develops into a narrative in which we find the man engaging in conversations with strangers and pretending he was the person the strangers had come to meet.

Source: ECYC
So you see how everything in Etgar Keret's stories hinges on originality. There's always a twist, always a treat for the reader, always a fantastic world bringing itself to light.
Readers have no chance of waxing disinterested. Their engagement is continuous. Before they even recover from the punch of the beginning and the surprise of the development, they are left with their mouth agape when the story ends abruptly. And when I say this I don't mean to say Etgar Keret's stories end in full stops. Rather, they end in something that looks like commas. No end-of-road in sight, only the promise of a further journey. Indeed, the general feeling, after having read any of the texts in the collection, is that there's more to be found outside the given story.
And so, these endings slash the horizon open in order to reveal, beyond the vanishing point, the fantasy of a world always happy to show its artificial essence.
There's, obviously, a major point to all of this. Etgar Keret cares not only about his stories but about Story. He experiments with form as well as with content. He orders his texts in such a way as to make them work together. And if this is not immediately apparent, wait till you reach "The Story, Victorious":
"This story is the best story in the book. More than that, this story is the best story in the world. [...] This story is a unique Israeli innovation. [...] Just as our army is the best army in the world - same with this story. We're talking here about an opening so innovative that it's protected by registered patent. And where is this patent registered? That's the thing, it's registered in the story itself!"
This, right here, is not only a story. It is the story of the entire collection, and a story about storytelling; in it, the simplest truth that can be uttered is that narratives need no support: they legitimate themselves and give themselves the right to shine. A truth so simple, it sounds like an experiment in telling (of stories, if not of other things as well). But to be honest, Keret's experimental attitude was apparent from the very first text: the one that gives the collection its title, "Suddenly, a Knock on the Door." Here, already, the story is a meta-story, featuring characters who ask the protagonist to tell them a story and threaten to kill him if he shows any signs of fatigue or failure. With such a set-up, it comes as little surprise that the rest of the volume (and the rest of Keret's oeuvre, for that matter) behaves so eccentrically, always avoiding, with precision and excitement, the docile core of traditional storytelling.
Reaching the end of these stories, after having journeyed through their eccentricity, feels like a hurt of some sort. Perhaps the kind you got when you were a kid and the grown-ups gave you sweets: you wanted more because you loved the rush, but they kept insisting that you should be content with this only one they were willing to give. You didn't know they were tantalising your imagination. You didn't know they were giving you a story to chew.