It’s easy to mistake Etgar Keret for light reading. With Keret, four pages is an epic tale—most of his stories weigh in at five or six paragraphs. But brevity and levity are not the same, and nowhere is this more clear than in his fifth and latest collection, The Girl on the Fridge. Though rooted in ordinary events—birthday parties, traffic jams—and told in straightforward, unadorned prose, the fantastic inevitably creeps in, leaving his stories with a strange foreboding. Such is the case in “Hat Trick,” in which an unwitting magician starts pulling severed rabbits and headless babies out of his hat to the delight of his underage audience; or “Crazy Glue,” in which a marital dispute is solved when the woman pastes herself to the ceiling with super glue. This surrealism, coupled with glib narration, belies how serious a writer Keret is and how dark his subject matter. This does not mean that the author’s bizarre scenes won’t make you laugh—they will—but just as often, that laughter will get stuck in your throat.
Fridge picks up where The Nimrod Flipout, his last collection of stories, left off. Although not different in kind, the new book will likely be paid more attention, as the Israeli writer has become better known Stateside thanks to his forays into film. He wrote the story on which the indie hit Wristcutters was based, and won last year’s Camera d’Or prize at Cannes for Jellyfish, his directorial debut.
Now 40, Keret has been credited with being the voice of a post-Oslo, post-Intifada state, an heir of laureate Amos Oz. And while it would be shortsighted to reduce Keret to his nationality, what makes him stand out as a writer is his ability to capture the post-traumatic stress that seems to pervade Israel and its people. That’s not to say he pens scenes of political drama—hardly. What Keret has written are not stories of war, but of its aftershocks, the difficulty of trying to make sense after things have been irrevocably knocked off kilter. In Keret’s fractured world, it seems all too reasonable that magicians pull out severed heads, cafÃ© proprietors kill customers who talk politics and Palestinians bleed candy.Â
In “Loquat,” one of Fridge‘s finest stories, a nagging old woman makes her grandson don his IDF uniform to scare away some neighborhood kids playing in her yard. What might be a neighborhood skirmish elsewhere turns into war here, as the kids shout “PLO” and pelt the uniformed boy with stones. Retold, the story sounds heavy-handed, but in Keret’s rendering there’s no trace of artifice and it’s funny as hell. Similarly, in “The Night the Buses Died,” a commuter’s wait for the bus becomes a strange nightmare when he finds out that the country’s fleet has died, turning roadways into bus cemeteries: “It was lying on its back, badly burnt out of shape. A thick smear of black brake oil covered the fragmented windshield. I knelt down and wiped at the oil with my shirtsleeve. It was a 42. I’d never actually taken one.” In the midst of wreckage, such a psychologically mundane reflection on the number 42 bus is a near-perfect observation.
While Israel-related themes can be easily gleaned from most of its stories, Fridge also allows for more universal interpretation. One of the most disquieting entries in the collection has nothing to do with Israel. “One Hundred Percent” revolves around a boyfriend trying to convince his girlfriend to show him her breasts. They go on this way for years, him promising that whatever is under her shirt will not change his feelings for her, but the girl won’t budge, insisting that “nothing is one hundred percent.” What happens when she finally unbuttons her shirt you’ll have to read for yourself, but the suspense that Keret conjures in the span of a couple of paragraphs is enough for an entire book.