The thin house–a house four feet wide and occupying a space between two buildings in Warsaw–isn’t a likely candidate to entertain the guests who show up unexpectedly and demand a story from the author on the spot in the title story of Etgar Keret’s latest collection, Suddenly, a Knock on the Door. While it would not be able to hold the action of the piece, it does explain the style of the Israeli author’s storytelling: as Steven Kurutz of The New York Times writes, the thin house, built with Keret in mind, is “small but complete.” There are a total of thirty-six stories contained within the 188 pages of the book, an average of five pages per story, though as we know averages work, many come in much shorter, with some barely stretching over one page. In these brief pieces, Keret packs in whole worlds.
Almost like a Paul Auster novel in short form, Keret’s stories feature protagonists in emotional upheaval, often dealing with loss–a spouse lost to death, a girlfriend or wife lost to another person or not, a child miscarried, and so on. The upheaval seems to allow the characters a certain openness, an easy ability to slip into whatever strange situation they encounter–and they will encounter strange situations. Largely, the characters are broken and looking for ways to connect and overcome their loneliness. In “Healthy Start,” Miron, whose lover recently moved on, sits at a cafe table and becomes the person whoever sits across from him expects him to be. In “What Do We Have In Our Pockets?”, the protagonist walks with bulging pockets so that he’ll always be prepared for the moment he might be able to help out an attractive or charming woman in need, or as he describes it, “A tiny chance, let’s say, that when happiness comes along, I can say yes to it, and not, ‘Sorry, I don’t have a cigarette/toothpick/coin for the soda machine.’”
Many of the stories enter the surreal. “Lieland” tells of an alternative reality underground where every lie that has been told is true; in “Bitch,” a man’s dead wife is reincarnated as a poodle he meets accompanying an old woman in a train car; and in “What, Of This Goldfish, Would You Wish?”, a man begins filming a documentary asking people what they would wish for if they found a talking goldfish that grants wishes, which goes well until he runs into a man who has really found such a fish. Other plots include a woman who only sleeps with men named Ari, a woman whose boyfriends always commit suicide, a hemorrhoid that grows large and powerful and becomes a chairman of the board, and a weather machine for the wealthy that can keep the weather at September all year long. Despite the fantastic, the stories ring true. They range from playful to dark, from humorous to disturbing, but throughout retain a real human element. Keret is a master at entering a character’s psyche and rendering so completely in minimum space.
The stories frequently open in medias res or conclude before reaching a traditional conclusion. However, what happens next, what comes after that knock on the door, doesn’t really matter. And this too adds to the “realness” of these stories, for when in life do our misadventures end in an easily summarized point, or is it even possible to identify when they end at all? In this sense, the stories work similarly to poems: it’s not so much where you’re going but how you get there.
The collection also contains a number of meta-narratives. “The Story, Victorious” opens:
This is the best story in the book. More than that, this story is the best story in the world. And we weren’t the ones to come to that conclusion, which was also reached by a unanimous team of dozens of unaffiliated experts who–employing strict laboratory standards–measured it against a representative sampling taken from world literature. This story is a unique Israeli innovation.
While reading the rest of the story, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Charles Bernstein’s tongue-in-cheek poem “Thank You For Saying Thank You.” And there were other moments in the collection where Keret’s work warranted comparison to other American poets, specifically Russell Edson and James Tate, both known for their surrealist, and frequently comic, work. Ultimately, Suddenly, a Knock on the Door, is a fun, quick read and for those who have not yet read any of Keret’s previous books, a great introduction to his work
Gina Myers is a staff writer and the author of the poetry collection A Model Year. In addition to writing music and book reviews, she has also interviewed many indie writers and artists, including James Tadd Adcox, Dan Farnum, Dan Magers, Brian Oliu, Justin Sirois and Graham Foust.