Short but stout: Israelis miniscule stories are engrossing

Earlier this year, an online magazine announced the results of its “six-word memoir” contest. Asking someone to sum up life, the universe and everything in 19 words fewer than are contained in this sentence is a lot to ask. And yet, the contest winner came close: “Barrister, barista, what’s the diff, Mom?”

Saying a lot with a little need not be reduced to a novelty act. Take Etgar Keret. These days, the Tel Aviv resident is best known as the co-director of the acclaimed Israeli film “Jellyfish,” but legions of fans in Israel, the United States and elsewhere have taken to his short stories with a fervor once reserved for, say, Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

Having just consumed a 171-page compilation of his earliest works, “The Girl on the Fridge,” in about 80 minutes flat, I can see why. The emotional depth and feeling Keret manages to wring from stories perhaps not even two pages long is simply stunning — over the course of a yarn shorter than a San Francisco Examiner article, Keret introduces us to a protagonist, more or less establishes his or her station in life, and really makes us feel the hope, desperation, rage or resignation fueling his literary creations.

Keret was born in 1967 in Ramat Gan, Israel, and the stories populating “The Girl on the Fridge” were penned when he was in his young and mid-20s. And, as brilliant as he can be, one does pick up vestiges of youth when reading more than 40 tales back-to-back-to-back.

Many of these yarns are drenched with perverse sex, and the shadow of death is never far off. Characters often behave with stunning brutality — over the course of several pages, one will read about a man shot-gunning his family and a lunatic knifing a woman and, in turn, being hit over the head with a sledgehammer. More than a few stories rashly conclude with violent accidents or death. The repetitious nature of this sex and violence sometimes works against Keret’s formidable skill and does not enhance his greatest attribute — the ability to effortlessly submerge readers within the conscious and subconscious lives of his characters (Keret’s dialogue and first-person narratives are superb).

The author also has a taste for the surreal: Israeli border police knife an Arab and contraband spills out of him like a piñata; a disgruntled patient’s shadow strangles his incompetent hospital orderly or all of the buses in a municipality are slaughtered in a massacre and their oil-spewing corpses litter the streets.

Keret’s surrealism and taste for the mystical have earned him favorable comparisons to Isaac Bashevis Singer — not bad for work written when the author was fresh out of his Israel Defense Forces hitch. Perhaps it’s a matter of personal taste, but I feel Keret’s forays into the supernatural sometimes serve as a crutch. In the same way Michael Chabon writes so well that his beautiful prose often comes at the expense of advancing the plot, Keret’s imagination is so virile that he knows he can pull any surreal rabbit out of the hat to end a tricky short story (indeed, in one tale a magician inexplicably begins pulling severed rabbit parts and, finally, a dead baby out of his hat, which drives him into premature retirement).

The last thing I’d like to see is for Keret’s creative wings to be clipped. Yet I found his more earthbound stories of ennui, lost love, camaraderie, friendship, longing and simple slices of life to be far more riveting.

Head to any bookstore and you’ll find shelf after shelf of dragons, telepathy, hearts, moons, stars and clovers. Yet an author who has Keret’s knack for dialogue and storytelling and the ability to paint such nuanced portraits of life within the confines of exceptionally short stories — well, that’s magic.

“The Girl on the Fridge” by Etgar Keret (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 171 pages, $12).

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.