Etgar Keret’s work is often marked by a sense that one is in a slightly different reality. It isn’t surrealism, just a place where you might be able to buy for 9.99 the meaning of life. In the stories of Keret that purchase never really works out as one would want, and usually the charters don’t so much as regret their decisions as abandon them as just yet another of life’s let downs. The stories in The Girl on the Fridge aren’t quite as fantastic (see my review of The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God), but there is still that sense that what one wants doesn’t always work out. Keret’s stories are very short and he has the ability to zero in on those moments with great precision, stripping away everything except those small moments of disappointment.
In The Real Winner of the Preliminary Games, a group of men get together every few weeks to talk and drink. They have a ritual to it and the evenings allow them to not so much find answers to their problems, but find that they are not so bad. Towards the end one of the men says he’s feed up and is going to commit suicide. His friend, Eitan, talks him out of it. But Eitan, in a moment that has that feeling of melancholy that is just below the surface of many Keret stories takes out his M 16.
“If I want to, I can shoot,” he said out loud. He ordered his brain to pull the trigger. His finger obeyed, but stopped halfway. He could do it, he wasn’t scared. He just had to make sure he wanted to. He thought about it for a few seconds. Maybe in the general scheme of things he couldn’t find any meaning to life, but on a smaller scale it was okay. Not always, but a lot of the time. He wanted to live, he really did. That’s all there was to it. Eitan gve his finger another order to make sure he wasn’t kidding himself. It still seemed prepared to do whatever he wanted. He put the gun on half cock and pushed the safety back in. If not for those four beers, he’d never even have tried it. He would have made up an excuse, said it was just a dumb test, that it didn’t mean anything. But like Uzi said, that was the whole point. He put the gun back in the drawer and went into the bathroom to puke. then he washed his face and soaked his head in the sink. Before drying himself, he took a look in the mirror. A skinny guy, we hair, a little pale, like that runner on TV. He wasn’t jumping or yelling or anything, but he’d never felt this good.
Eitan puts the gun away because that is what one does. He then feels a rush. Is it from the test or the rush that comes after throwing up? Whatever it is, it isn’t the answer to anything, just the relief from melancholic doubt. Tomorrow it may return and when the men return to the bar they’ll talk each other into living again because that’s what one does.
In one of his more fantastical ones, Freeze, a man gains the power to make the world freeze. When the world freezes he takes the opportunity to have sex with the best looking women (rape is what he is actually doing although the character would never admit it). At first it works out great for him, but eventually some one tells him that is not good because the women aren’t asking for it. So he then begins a series of experiments, telling the women why they are in their frozen state to scream during sex. Nothing satisfies him until he realizes all he has to do is tell the woman to love him for himself. Of course that works and the woman loves him. All through the story, though, you have a man getting what he wants only to find it is what he wants and in relationships is isn’t just the one person that matters. He is satisfied, but there is always the lingering doubt that what the relationship, any relationship is built on are demands that only one wants. That he can command someone to love him for himself is in of it self contradictory and at the same time a parody of what should be a operating principle for couples. It is a disturbing story that leaves one wondering what loving one for oneself really means.
Keret often uses the perception of children to expose the strangeness of the adult world. In Moral Something, a man is sentenced to hang and the kids who have seen the sentencing on TV try to understand what happens we someone is hung. Since the adults are trying to protect them from the information and the kids only have roumor they have to experiment. They hang a stray cat, but of course it settles nothing because they don’t know if they have done it right. The boys argue over it and when the prettiest girl in school walks by she tells them they are all animals. Keret in that little scene is able to create what the adult world looks like without the veneer of rules, laws, and moral codes. The kids, too, are on that ever present search for the answers that never exist. They don’t know yet, as Eitan in The Real Winner, that there are only approximations, things you settle on because they work even if they aren’t what everyone else is doing.
There are dozens of brief little encounters such as these that show Keret as a master of the form. His vision of a world that never quite operates with the same rules as ours does makes him one of the most interesting short story writers around. While The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God is a little more fantastical and, therefore, more interesting, The Girl on the Fridge is still a welcome addition to his body of work.