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Something Better than a Moral

The Girl on the Fridge

By Etgar Keret
trans. Miriam Shlesinger and Sondra Silverston
FSG, 2008

Wristcutters: A Love Story

Directed and written by Goran Dukic
Based on the novella “Kneller’s Happy Campers” by Etgar Keret
2006

Jellyfish

Directed by Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen
Written by Shira Geffen
2007

 
A couple of years ago, in an effort to improve my Hebrew, I picked up a book of Etgar Keret’s best-selling stories in the original to read aloud with my Israeli-born boyfriend. The stories, at 1-4 pages each, were so short that even with my limited reading ability we could easily get through one in, say, a 2-hour car ride. There were a couple of problems though. One is that Keret’s plot shifts are so sudden that not only the novice, but often the expert, is forced to re-read multiple times. (“That can’t be right,” my boyfriend would say, trying to keep his eyes on the road, “I think you just said they hanged a cat,” or, “He’s suddenly holding a jackhammer?” But they had, and he was). The other problem is that instead of learning useful vocabulary, I ended up with a mouthful of new profanities. These stories were neither linguistically, nor emotionally, Level 1. But I wanted to keep reading.

Keret’s newest English language collection, The Girl on the Fridge, translated by Miriam Shlesinger and Sondra Silverston, includes several stories that help to explain Keret’s spare art. In his opening “Asthma Attack” we find “When an asthmatic says ‘I love you,’ and when an asthmatic says ‘I love you madly,’ there’s a difference. The difference of a word. A word’s a lot. It could be stop, or inhaler. It could even be ambulance.” This manifesto should serve as ample warning that, like it or not, Keret will almost always opt for maddening description over useful instruction.

Etgar Keret entered my world at a reading he gave in Boston a few years ago. I still remember almost every word of the story he read, “Surprise Egg,” in which the unfortunate young victim of a terrorist attack is revealed, in the autopsy, to have been suffering from undetected, advanced-stage cancer. The reader is yanked, in the space of one or two sentences, from the fear of terrorism to the deeper fear of mortality in general, and to confront the bizarre comfort provided by the illusion of an unambiguous enemy. Keret, who has long been popular in Israel (he was introduced at the reading as the most shoplifted writer in the country), has, over the past few months, been increasingly on the lips of American readers and filmgoers. Last month, in addition to the release of The Girl on the Fridge, the film Jellyfish [Meduzot], which Keret co-directed with his wife, the screenwriter Shira Geffen, premiered in the US. This followed close on the heels of the DVD release of the 2006 Wristcutters: A Love Story (not to be confused with Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Enemies, a Love Story, another tale of immigration, nightmares and suicide), directed by Goran Dukic, who adapted the screenplay from Keret’s novella “Kneller’s Happy Campers.”

Keret, who has described himself as a “Jew in the Diaspora of Israel,” might have stepped out of the avant-garde of a century ago, with his surrealist associative plot twists and his Futurist-like belief in the beauty of ugliness. The difference is that his characters exhibit a mixture of hopelessness, smugness and technological savvy that could only have come out of Israel and the most recent fin de siècle. They are victims and perpetrators of many layers of racism; they wander the world in hopes of getting lost; dream nightmares within nightmares, each more gruesome than the next. Horrible things happen in Etgar Keret’s stories, and one tragedy often lurks just below the surface of another: children discover the worst in their parents’ infidelities, a magician pulls dead babies out of hats, friends drive friends to contemplate suicide, a soldier vacuum-seals himself to protect himself against an abusive sergeant, only to make himself impenetrable to his lover, another soldier is brutally beaten up by a gang of children, a young half-Palestinian man must fight to stay alive in a city where everyone wants to kill him. While Keret’s stories often begin neatly, they end by upsetting and unsettling the reader. Rarely, if ever, is there an easy take-home message.

The Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua has famously criticized Keret for his failure to take a clear side in political issues (Keret has responded, for his part, by accusing Yehoshua of patronizing his Palestinian characters). Keret, while contributing with his characteristic dark humor to some of the most political conversations in contemporary Israel, resists clarity. It is this troubling undertone to his literature, his liberal use of cruelty and ambiguous moral conclusions, that both madden some of his contemporaries and liken him to some of the greatest writers of the past century. Back in 1989, Richard Rorty wrote about Vladimir Nabokov’s relationship to cruelty in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, pointing out Nabokov’s failure to integrate a convincing commitment to liberalism into his work: “Nabokov’s best novels are the ones which exhibit his inability to believe his own general ideas.” The same might be said of Keret, who at 40 may still be viewed as a spokesperson for Israel’s youth precisely because he does not pretend to have all the answers.

Keret has managed to offend both the Right and the Left, and his work, now translated into twenty-two languages, thwarts some readers’ expectations of an Israeli author. God and the religious are seldom the focus in The Girl on the Fridge, although in “Knockoff Venus” the Greek gods do make an appearance as new immigrants to Israel. The main character falls for a lonely Venus: “Her Hebrew wasn’t great. She was a goddess, but she was making seven thousand shekels, pretax.” One of the few stories in the volume with a clear Jewish resonance, “Atonement,” depicts brutal domestic violence on Yom Kippur. Among Keret’s favorite tropes are buses, sex, suicide, birthday parties, and magic shows. The many children in his stories may start out naïve, but their innocence dies quickly. In “Cheerful Colors” six-year-old Danny discovers the weekly paint-by-number: “The children were supposed to help Uncle Isaac find his lost pipe and to color it in with cheerful colors.” But Little Danny slowly comes to recognize the numbing sadness in a world where lost things are supposed to be exposed and art is supposed to be cheerful:

He knew people called him Snitch behind his back, but he didn’t care. He went right on helping. He helped George find Noriega, who’d been lying low, and helped the Nazi henchmen find Anne Frank, and helped the Romanian people find the elusive Ceauşescu, and always made sure to color the fugitives with cheerful colors.

Wristcutters: A Love Story translates Keret’s hard-hitting Israeli vignettes into a counter-cultural American romantic comedy about a young man and woman who meet and slowly fall in love. The plot may be formulaic, but the setting is not: the young heroes fall in love in a purgatory for suicides, a world that is “just like before you offed, only a little bit worse.” The landscape, a wasteland with a striking resemblance to Arizona, is littered with garbage, the people are self-absorbed and depressed, some are members of cults, many wear visible signs of their self-inflicted demise: faces are frozen in horror, heads bear eternally fresh bullet wounds. Despite this utterly dark alternate reality, the film is sweet. As in Dante’s Purgatory, no one wants to be in suicide Hell, and in this way, as in many of Keret’s stories, by confronting the unimaginable, viewers return to the world they know with a disturbing mixture of relief and sobriety.

The actors achieve an admirable subtlety and the story, while simple, follows in the best tradition of the self-quest. Zia, played by Patrick Fugit is on an ill-begotten search for his poorly chosen girlfriend (who, he hears, has followed him to Hell), but finds himself increasingly attracted to Mikal (Shannyn Sossamon), who is convinced she has landed there by mistake and wants to find the people in charge. Much of the music that accompanies the journey is the melancholy gypsy punk of Gogol Bordello, whose lead singer, Eugene Hutz, could easily have inspired the third member of the quest, a Russian named Eugene (Shea Whigham), a perpetual immigrant whose entire family has committed suicide and lives together in eternal guilt and codependence. Although Whigham does a fine job I couldn’t help but wonder why the directors hadn’t managed to cast Hutz who, in a similarly Russian Virgilic role, saved the film Everything is Illuminated. Tom Waits plays Kneller, the original novella’s title character and upbeat master of small miracles.

While the film sticks largely to Keret’s plot, one significant change is the erasure of the Israeli context. Keret’s hero is from Tel Aviv, whereas Zia appears to be from the US. Not that this really detracts from the story, which is about the human, and not only the Israeli, condition, but it does simplify the layered resonance when the characters utter lines like “We are all immigrants here.” Like the newly arrived Venus in The Girl on the Fridge, the characters in Wristcutters deserve better but have taken a very wrong turn.

The idea of eternal exile also permeates Jellyfish. “We are all second generation something,” says one of the supporting characters, a wedding photographer who gets herself fired by snapping too many sad people. Shira Geffen proves to be a talented screenwriter, weaving themes that suggest fascinating conversations with her husband, but with a soft touch and an emphasis on community that is more reminiscent of the work of an older Israeli writer, Amos Oz. Jellyfish, for which Keret and Geffen shared the Camera d’Or award at Cannes in 2007, traces a few days in the lives of three women in Tel Aviv: a recently dumped catering assistant, a bride who has broken her leg at her own wedding, and a Filipino caregiver who speaks English and Tagalog but no Hebrew. Each of these women is alienated from her closest family members, including, significantly, the bride, whose paranoia about her new husband’s affections paints a poignant picture of the need to find oneself even while in love. Each character is searching for love, and for peace with her past and future.

The stories, which form a narrative montage that is greater than the sum of its parts, trace the three characters as they lose themselves, find themselves, are humiliated, and are comforted by the unexpected poetry of the day to day. The supporting characters, all sympathetic and complex in their own right, emerge at necessary moments as foils, alter egos, and sometimes lifelines for the three heroines: Batya the lonely catering assistant is visited by a strange child who comes out of the sea; Joy the caregiver is reminded of her need for her distant son by an unexpected bond with her impatient (and even racist) charge. The temporarily immobilized bride finds a creative and tragic connection with a mysterious writer. The film champions the force of character in the face of alienation. The sea, which is ever-present in the Tel Aviv setting, is a body that separates and threatens all three women, but also connects their stories, and offers each a path home. Indeed, the seaside city emerges as the true heroine in this story of accidents and accidental community.

“Should we be worried about Etgar Keret?” My boyfriend and I half-joked as we left the art-house theater where we saw Jellyfish a couple of weeks ago. One can only imagine the dinner conversations Geffen and Keret must enjoy, and there are moments in which the talented couple teases us into equating their art with their biographies. Keret makes a cameo in Jellyfish, and his handsome father Efraim is cast as an ageless ice cream vendor on the Tel Aviv beach. There is no shortage of inspiration in this family: Geffen’s father, Yehonatan (nephew of Moshe Dayan) is a well-known songwriter, and her brother Aviv is a famous Israeli rock star. But despite (or perhaps because of) the transparent artistic community that seems to have nurtured both artists, their work subverts straightforward interpretation. There is no clear moral to any of these stories.

In one of the stranger inclusions in Keret’s The Girl on the Fridge, “Painting,” a female artist is given rent in a man’s apartment in exchange for painting him a picture. The owner of the apartment falls in love with the painter and grows jealous when men (including his brother) come to visit her at night. He desperately attempts to read something into her yet unfinished work.

It has occurred to you that the painting itself may go a long way toward elucidating her feelings for you. Could she in fact be in love with you? Could this whole apartment transaction be a ruse for getting closer to you? Either way, would you mind letting go of your brother’s throat? He’s turning slightly blue.

Where were we? Something to do with blue. Well, in the end it turns out she was making you a painting of the sea. No, the sky. Ah, sorry, now you’ve strangled your brother. Ah yes, we were just saying how much you can learn about a person’s character from a painting.

Like this fratricidal second-person protagonist, and like Danny with his paint-by-numbers, the readers are left to color in their own moral for the story. As Keret told fellow writer Aaron Hamburger last year in an interview for KGBBarLit, “A writer in my eyes is not necessarily an educator or someone who knows better than his readers. He can be (and in my case is) just as confused as they are.” Perhaps this is why the pictures he paints say so much more about the viewer’s character than his own.

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Amelia Glaser is an Assistant Professor of Russian Literature at the University of California, San Diego.