Fly Already by Etgar Keret: a book review by Geoffrey Zygier

November 19, 2019 by Geoffrey Zygier
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Fly Already, the latest collection of short stories by Etgar Keret not only includes 22 new tales, but also an uncharacteristic side-swipe at Donald Trump.

This rare event for Keret (who seldom writes overtly about political issues) has likely provided even more motivation for the book reviewers for The New Yorker, the Guardian, Slate, London Review of Books, New York Times and other august arbiters of cool literary views to find the ultimate superlative for this renowned Israeli author.

And why shouldn’t they? The first time I read a Keret short story many years ago, I was stunned. My first impulse was to contact all the people who I thought would appreciate his work. However, I simply couldn’t find the precise words to describe his writing to them. Genius? Imaginative? Bizarre? Unique? Dystopian? Stoned? Wry? Absurd? Whimsical? Hilarious? When Keret is at his best, his fans cry out for a single word that incorporates all these descriptors.

Clive James – a man who knows a thing or two about writing – has stated that Keret is among the most important fiction writers living today. There are few serious readers of fiction who haven’t read his wacky yet profound tales. Keret doesn’t simply write unforgettable short stories (half a dozen pages is common), but some consist of a meagre, yet nonetheless magical, 500 words. His work is at times reminiscent of Murakami, Rushdie, Marquez, Kafka, Vonnegut and Shalom Aleichem (and even Rabbi Nachman of Breslov), yet Etgar Keret’s voice is clearly his own.

If there are any themes in the widely varied stories that constitute Fly Already, they are the difficulty humans have in connecting with one another and the inevitability of disappointment and loss in our brief lives. In the title story, Keret’s narrator is trying to save a distressed man from leaping off the roof of a nearby building, but his young son perceives the potential suicide as a superhero preparing to fly. Another story features a rich but lonely man who “buys” strangers’ birthdays in order to feel loved and valued. And in a further tale, angels are bored stiff by Heavenly existence and yearn to once again feel the ups and downs of their former lives.

There is a distinct darkness and world-weariness in this collection and less leavening by Keret’s celebrated absurd humour than in past work. The ultimate Jewish darkness, the Holocaust, is mentioned a number of times, while in other stories their alienated protagonists lead mundane, unfulfilling lives that are similarly devastating.

In the collection’s penultimate story, Pineapple Crush, a childcare worker meets a middle-aged woman on his daily after-work visit to the beach, where he always smokes a joint to ease the dreariness of his life: “The first hit of the day is like a childhood friend, a first love, a commercial for life”, he explains. “But it’s different from life itself, which is something that, if I could have, I would have returned to the store ages ago.”

The two start meeting and smoking together every evening, until the woman tells him she won’t be able to see him anymore. This crushes the narrator, who realises his life has become a pathetic cycle of getting high and meeting women on social media: “I missed someone I didn’t even really know”, he thinks. “And that was exciting and at the same time humiliating. Because that feeling of missing someone was mostly evidence of how vapid my life had become.”

This dissatisfaction is reinforced in Keret’s final story, The Evolution of a Breakup, where a character declares: “We promised ourselves we’d find a job we’d love, and when that didn’t work out we settled for a job we didn’t hate, and we felt lucky, and then unlucky, and then lucky again.” It’s a bleak ending to this book.

Short stories are notoriously difficult to write, and even more so for a miniaturist like Keret. One clunky word or false note can have dire consequences for a story. And how much harder is the author’s task when his work is translated from a very different language like Hebrew. While I think it fair to say there is some unevenness in Fly Already, this is at least partially due to the risks Keret is prepared to take. While there is a sense of futility and bleakness that jar on occasion, a number of stories in this collection would rate amongst his best. When he is on song, there are few better short fiction writers in the world. If you haven’t read Etgar Keret before, I suggest you check him out. I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

Fly Already by Etgar Keret (Scribe, 2019)

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