Monday, 5 August 2013

Suddenly, A Knock On The Door by Etgar Keret Review

“Tell Me A Story” opens this book of short stories, as a writer called Etgar Keret is forced at gunpoint to make up a story on the spot by a home invader. As more characters are introduced – a survey taker, a pizza delivery man, all of whom turn up at his door in succession like in a sitcom – each of them enter his flat, pull out a weapon and demand a story. This sense of playfulness and originality runs through a lot of the short stories in Keret’s latest collection, “Suddenly, A Knock On The Door”.

Keret’s stories move fluidly between literary styles from surrealism, like in the first story, to magical realist like in “Lieland”. In this story a man who has told lies his entire life discovers – via a gumball machine – that a land exists where all of his lies are reality. Every unfortunate character from this man’s made-up stories lives in Lieland. The handicapped cousin he used as an excuse for being late to work one time? He lives in Lieland. Hundreds of lies made real in this strange land. Other stories in this vein include “Unzipping” where a woman discovers a zip on her boyfriend’s tongue and, upon unzipping it, reveals a similar-looking man but with an entirely different personality.

Though these stories are enjoyable for their inventiveness and imagination, Keret’s other types of stories involve everyday settings and people to equal effectiveness. “Cheesus Christ” is one such story where a man’s dying words in a fast food restaurant sets off a chain of events for everyone involved with the business, centred around the inclusion of a non-cheese hamburger to the menu. In “Teamwork” a father believes that his very young son wants him to kill his mother-in-law (or is that just his imagination and own dark desires?) and concocts a brutal plan of murder. In one of the simplest (conceptually speaking) stories here, “What Do We Have In Our Pockets?”, he has his character list what he has in his pockets, and why they’re always full. The last line in the story is gently moving and brilliant. In “Healthy Start”, a comedic and absurdist story, a lonely man sits and waits in a cafĂ© each morning for any strangers that look like they’re looking for someone and then pretends to be that someone, adopting their identity for the duration of the breakfast.

But the best stories in this collection are the ones that mix surrealism and magical realism into the everyday to create something truly different. “What Animal Are You?” takes the original perspective of an author being filmed by a German film crew, writing the story we’re reading while pretending to be really writing and telling the reader about his young son’s game of asking people what animal they are. The story takes an unusually heartfelt turn as it becomes clear that this simple game isn’t understood by his parents but is by random hookers visiting a lonely widower in a nearby apartment. Then the story becomes deeply unnerving when a horror element is thrown in at the very last moment.

A lot of these stories – and there are a lot, nearly 40 in this collection – are mostly quite short at 4-5 pages each, but contain an astonishing amount of story. So much is going on in them as Keret wastes no time in setting the tone, the characters, and the story that he only needs a few pages to tell an affecting, memorable tale. Which isn’t to say that every story here is a triumph: for every well written, imaginative story is another that is trying for the same thing, but not quite accomplishing it. However the stories that do work more than make this collection worth picking up in order to read a unique voice and enormously talented writer creating magic in just a few brief pages over and over again.

Suddenly, a Knock on the Door

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